Thursday, December 30, 2004

Scribner Place about to begin, says C-J - chickens in every pot soon to follow

Today in the Courier-Journal, Ben Zion Hershberg contributes an excellent overview of current progress toward beginning the process of building New Albany's Scribner Place project:

In it, architect Wayne Estopinal discusses the revised money-saving, two-part plan to get Scribner Place off the ground:

It reduces the expected investment by the city by $3 million to about $10 million. The three-story, 53,000-square-foot YMCA is still expected to cost about $8 million ... Estopinal said the new design concentrates on the first phase of the complex — the YMCA, the indoor swimming complex, a 160-space parking lot and the observation tower — leaving the design of buildings to be constructed by private developers for future discussion.

Even scaled back a bit, Estopinal said, Scribner Place "will be a great catalyst for downtown New Albany."

He expressed confidence that the YMCA and the swimming complex will attract thousands of visitors and encourage private developers to invest in the area, bringing downtown New Albany back to life.

"It will be important to get this first step under way," Estopinal said.

The tone of the article is optimistic, and relieved of the burden of extemporaneous thinking that makes his televised appearances so entertaining, Mayor Garner speaks assuredly as quoted by Hershberg.

Score one for the Mayor.

And yet, to return to Estopinal's assurance that private investment will follow the YMCA and revitalize downtown New Albany, is there anyone in the current administration - from the Mayor on down to his most lowly political patronage appointment - who's willing to reveal the apparently top-secret plan for assisting this process of revitalization?

There has to be a plan, right? If a plan is in place, then why doesn't the current administration take time off from mayoral photo ops and articulate it?

Exactly what is the Garner Team waiting for?

While it is encouraging that the project's architect continues to express confidence in the concept and sincerely believes that it will transform downtown into a Pixar-generated Lazerus rising to do syncopated soft shoe ... well, one tends to follow the party line of the fellow who's signing the pay checks.

Someone does have a plan, right?


All4Word said...

The Lazarus analogy is apt, although as a recently adopted Hoosier, I have no recollections of a bustling downtown to draw on.

I do, however, have some experience with "big" downtown redevelopments and remain wary about the city's investment in Scribner Place.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the idea of a bustling street culture downtown, including residential development. Frankly, I'm glad to see the idea of a centerpiece hotel falling by the wayside.

What I don't understand is why the city is building a YMCA. Is the $8 million for the natatorium and Y part of the city's investment, or is that on top of the city's $10 million. If it's included, why is the city paying for it? If it's not, isn't $10 million a little steep for 160 parking spaces?

Unless the Y is free to city residents, the city shouldn't be paying for it. The library is free because we as a city/county have chosen to fund it from tax revenues, however niggardly we do so. I might like to swim or work out or play basketball or send my kids to after-school programs, but if the city needs such and wants to spend tax money building a center, then it should be open to the public at nominal rates. The Y offers great programs, but I don't choose to pay the membership fee. If the city pays, I pay.

Be leery if the plan develops for an outside company to come in and "manage" the project once it becomes operational. These are almost always situations where a management company exploits the tax increment financing to have the city create a business opportunity for them, then charges the city a full market rate management fee and rakes the profits off into its (usually absentee) coffers. Once the city has been milked of all of its profit potential from the business operations, plus the annual management fee, the city is left with no incremental taxes.

In short, if the city wants to use its money as a catalyst for others to bring in business, it should know that the project itself won't pay for itself. It is only the ephemeral "other" development that makes the investment pay off. The actual city investment will likely lose money, so the increment must come from elsewhere.

That's why it is so important that the city have a plan for the surrounding developments. Merely wishing is not enough.

You may have heard of my crackpot plan. Take the $10 million over five years and use it as a carrot to draw in new businesses. Offer them $20,000 at the end of five years, possibly payable in five annual installments, but with enough leverage to ensure the city won't be subsidizing fly-by-nights. The businesses can use it to pay rent, utilities, payroll, or infrastructure and leasehold improvements.

If 500 (500 x $20,000) businesses were recruited to New Albany, vacancy rates would drop to zero. Office-based consultants would be crazy to pass this up. Restaurants and other merchants would have a leg up for those early start-up years. Landlords would be clamoring to build and renovate; residential development would follow quickly. Is there any doubt that a payout of $2 million a year to bring in 500 employers would generate enough incremental taxes to pay for itself?

Do Scribner Place on its own track, too. Just don't expect it to pay for itself.

edward parish said...

At this point in history, anything to jump start the DEAD downtown of New Albany has to be a plus. Yes, there are scattered points of promise, but few and far between. Destinations Booksellers is not in the "downtown" area, although the city will try and lay claim to it being. As far as the Y, bring on some stability besides furniture stores and a stable buffet.

All4Word said...

I guess you didn't hear, Edward. Smith's Furniture is closing to move to the new McCartin development in Clarksville.