A Candidate’s Progress (9): It’s time to answer those River View questions.

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Wouldn’t you love to see the unprecedented expenditure of $42 million, spread among dozens of small, grassroots investors, and spent across the entirety of downtown New Albany to improve, upgrade and revitalize the urban infrastructure we already have?

Of course you would, but the reality – or so we’re often told – is that the purportedly free market isn’t interested in such a dispersed and unfocused (read: unprofitable) investment in the future. Rather, it is interested in a concentrated investment on a single profit-making project, such as the one being proposed by Mainland Properties for the waterfront at River View.

Truth be told, River View isn’t exactly the free market, either. For the development to happen, the city must spend between $12 and $18 million for a parking facility and levee improvements, so as to prime the pump in a public-private partnership. Such partnerships are described by some as the wave of the future (others, like Rep. Clere, see bridge tolls as a similar “wave,” one that I earnestly hope swamps their dinghies).

Fittingly, precisely such a big-ticket project fits snugly within the parameters of a riverfront master plan written to snugly include precisely such a project. It’s Kismet, or Instant Redevelopment Karma, or something like them.

Advocates point to a stylish building at the foot of State Street as an example of public and private funding streams coming together. Yes, it has been done before – sort of.

The Horseshoe Foundation pledged money to the YMCA, the YMCA raised money of its own, the city kicked in a relatively small annual tithe, and voila! Downtown New Albany welcomed a non-profit organization that pledged to accommodate citizens of all income levels to the best of its ability. As far as can be determined, it has done so, while succeeding admirably in drawing people of all demographics to downtown.

But River View is decidedly different, not to mention a more expensive proposition for the city to help facilitate. Being a for-profit housing and retail venture, River View’s backers stress myriad future benefits to a downtown repopulated with condo dwellers, including a public plaza atop privately owned property. It also is expected that oodles of needed development will ensue in River View’s wake, presumably financed in more conventional ways without the city’s assistance.

In other words, financed in the way that almost all of downtown’s recently established new businesses were financed: Without $12 to $18 million in TIF leverage to prime their pumps – and, in fact, with very little monetary assistance at all from the city.

I’ll readily admit that for quite some time, the River View project seemed like a no-brainer to me. Now, even if my respect for the proposed developers remains undiminished, I’m not quite as sure.

For one thing, it’s a very big move, one that dwarfs the adjacent YMCA both in complexity and the potential to impact New Albany’s epicenter for decades to come. Get it right, and downtown is forever altered … maybe even for the good. Get it wrong, and the reverse likely will be both true, and ineradicable.

I’m plagued by these growing doubts, because the last thing I want to see is for the troglodytes to win. Personally, I stubbornly nurtured the hope that a project like River View might be the massive garlic-festooned stake driven through the civic lifeblood-sucking hearts of naysayers and obstructionists.

Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence to suggest that this is a possibility.

Before I’m yet again scolded for not grasping the nature of creative financing, permit me to add that the scheme seems clear as river mud to me. It goes something like this: The city wields its TIF as a magic wand to borrow against future tax revenues in order to build a parking garage beneath the buildings that the investors cannot finance without the city’s parking garage as collateral, and in time, the city gets paid back while the developers profit from their project.

In theory, the developers make money, the city loses nothing on the transaction, downtown development is spurred to greater heights, and we all have an ideal, accessible plaza for viewing the river. More or less, that’s it, right?

There’s even the railroad track running right through the center of it, which pushes dreamers like me to envision light rail connecting downtown to IUS, and across the K & I to Louisville, thus providing a mobility solution that is dependent neither on cars, nor Kerry Stemler’s orgiastic/oligarchic whims.

Maybe … although probably not in my lifetime. Mose Putney’s drawings remind me of Holland. Sadly, this isn’t Holland.

In the final analysis, the source of my discontent is not, as some surely believe, an eagerness to deploy my infamous contrarian tendencies “against” one or the other presumed power bases in the community, although it irks me to no end to witness the involvement of hands-off-politics entities in conceptually espousing this politically charged development, while not possessing the simple courage to conceptually denounce bridge tolls.

Rather, it’s a growing suspicion of top-down thinking in virtually all its manifestations, and a concurrent advocacy of bottom-up activism. It stems from an evolving recognition of the many thoughtful and skilled urban revolutionaries incubating grassroots innovations that empower smaller, sustainable units, and do not rely on gambles of this magnitude.

I’ve learned, I’m learning, and I will continue to learn. The more I learn, the brighter the seeming future for small economic development ball, as opposed to grandiose Hail Mary plays.

It also has me thinking back to my tenure as board member of the Urban Enterprise Association (UEA), and the success of our façade grant program. Relatively small matching grants undeniably helped to achieve a good measure of improvement within the boundaries of the zone. These matching grants could not be any more than half the total cost, but usually comprised a far smaller percentage than 40-odd percent, which $18 million would be in the case of the city’s River View TIF maneuvering.

Furthermore, dipping my toes ever so hesitantly into turgid political waters (squeamish DNA members might consider refraining from reading this paragraph), if the River View development project is everything it is touted as being, isn’t it worth the outgoing mayor’s expenditure of political capital to support the idea and alleviate escalating negative public opinion?

At the same time, if River View is not worth scattering a few farthings of lame duck political capital, what are we to conclude about its veracity?

In fact, after all is said and done, River View is not the YMCA, and the much touted merits of sparkling new office, retail and housing space in a city where plenty of them exist already, merely awaiting tender loving refurbishment, quite likely are dubious.

Consequently, our city council was right to table its April 4 resolution. It is both fitting and natural for questions to be asked, and just as important that they be answered.

There may yet be a powerfully persuasive argument in favor of recasting the TIF area to give away acreage for what might be an outstanding riverside commons area, providing a parking garage for a private developer to use as collateral to build a for-profit complex, permitting the developer to take possession of all of it when finished, and perhaps even cutting through the levee and erecting flood gates – because wouldn’t it all be worthwhile if we could see the river again?

Problem is, no one has made this powerfully persuasive argument.

There is still time on the clock. I’m listening.

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