ON THE AVENUES: Histrionic preservation? $8.5 million to gift Jeff Gahan with a new city hall “want” is inexcusable and simply obscene in a time of societal need.

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ON THE AVENUES: Histrionic preservation? $8.5 million to gift Jeff Gahan with a luxury city hall “want” is simply obscene in a time of societal need. 

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

I’m making up for the vacation day two weeks ago. For this afternoon’s follow-up post, go here.

Back in 2014, Mayor Jeff Gahan had a prime opportunity to advance historic preservation.

A noted local contractor was willing to renovate the 150-year-old tavern building at 922 Culbertson Avenue, once doing business as Haughey’s Place, and known to a later generation as Al-Mel’s. According to an oral understanding between the contractor and City Hall, Haughey’s was to be rehabilitated into the sort of street corner fixture our neighborhoods so desperately need.

Alas, poor Haughey’s.

Unknown to most, a top-secret, in-house plan already was gestating to subsidize New Directions to build four houses in long-vacant lots across the street from Haughey’s, and after a brief lull for campaign finance ciphering, our distinguished C-minus student/mayor abruptly reneged on saving the tavern, instead ordering the demolition of this longtime community gathering place.

ON THE AVENUES: A year later, the backroom politics of pure spite at Haughey’s Tavern still reek. (2015)

ON THE AVENUES: Now on tap at the ghost of Haughey’s Place: The politics of pure spite. (2014)

Two more houses were added to the New Directions mandate, to be built atop the tavern’s vanquished, naked footprint. In 2015, to the surprise of absolutely no one, flash cards of these six finished houses (weirdly dubbed “painted ladies” by prudes unaware of prostitution’s age-old vernacular) became one of Gahan’s prime re-election platform planks. Obviously, vacuous propaganda of this ilk was the primary reason for the tavern’s demolition in the first place.

Do you remember what our Genius of the Flood Plain said about the death sentence he handed to Haughey’s?

“After the construction of these homes are completed, no one will miss the dilapidated structure that was at 922 Culbertson Avenue.”

Sensitive self-monetizer, isn’t he?

Four years later, these six pleasant, ordinary houses haven’t made so much as a dent in terms of the city’s affordable housing crisis, and Gahan’s brief, tepid interest in the topic had evaporated even before he began giggling with a poo-bah’s childlike delight at his brilliant stratagem of targeting vulnerable populations at the New Albany Housing Authority for eviction and dispersal. The mayor’s signature public housing putsch was greeted with fawning, slobbering approval by the Democratic Party’s semi-literate bookless bootlickers.

It’s June, 2018, and peak Gahanism has arrived. The Leaden Anchor-Laden Emperor has decreed that housing conditions for his staff outweigh the needs of the many, and so it seems inevitable that the “dilapidated” and “neglected” Reisz Furniture building on Main Street not only will escape the tavern’s dismal fate, but is singularly worthy of conversion into a brilliant new showpiece City Hall, one destined to gather many gushing state and national preservation awards, and some sweet day, bear the mayor’s name in awestruck tribute.

The backroom deals seemingly have been cut, the dupes corralled, and the necessary votes secured. Beaks are achieving optimal wetness. Of course, had Gahan concluded the opposite — that a new parking garage, concert promotion bureau or gaping hole in the ground would be better to keep his gang of influence-peddlers in power — then Reisz would have long since been reduced to rubble.

Histrionic preservationists should take pause, because it would be a mistake to rule out this purely conceivable outcome.

Other folks count sheep, Gahan enumerates wrecking balls — and tree stumps, full-page magazine ads and anchor tattoos — and Reisz might yet tumble earthward if the mayor doesn’t get his way.

Surely the snarling pre-emptive threats already have been transmitted via a brace of 2:00 a.m. phone calls to the minions, who silently curse the inconvenience as they bill to the mayor’s dulcet coo. The envelopes are stuffed, and the globe keeps spinning.

Whenever Gahan, a presumed Democrat, pontificates about the Reisz project being “a move to protect our history,” I sadly recall the fate of Haughey’s and so many other remnants of the city’s past, buildings that might have been adaptively re-used, but didn’t meet the threshold of narcissistic grandiloquence demanded by the mayor’s ethics-free selective reasoning and laughably elevated self-image.

In a city more allergic to irony than pollen or ragweed, Gahan’s newfound tender concern for the historical imperatives of the Reisz building is profoundly ironic, too. Do you recall those two words, “dilapidated” and “neglect”?

They’re not mine.

Rather, they come straight from Dear Leader’s mouth, via the medium of Mike Hall, the Shadow Mayor & Big Word Interpreter & Imperial Court Food Taster, and they serve as the convenient excuse for Gahan to don his Halloween leftover Superman outfit and rescue this pathetically abused historic building from the scandalous clutches of its shirker owner, who after all, has allowed it to deteriorate to the current juncture of high urgency.

Except the neglectful “villain” in this instance has been remunerated far above market value for his stubbornness. The redevelopment commission surreptitiously gifted the Reisz’s purchase price of $390,000 to the city’s preferred contractor Denton Floyd — by sheer coincidence, a firm frequently contributing to Gahan’s campaign war chest — which duly passed the money to the Reisz building’s owner, who as Gahan himself concedes, rendered it dilapidated in the first place.

In consequence-free Nawbany, the words “miraculous government-enabled windfall bailout” spring immediately to mind.

Eagerly abetting Gahan’s desire to erect a lasting memorial to his shimmering and saintly benevolence is councilman David “Tunnel Vision” Barksdale, a thoroughly camouflaged Republican and prominent historic preservationist, who has let it be known that the Reisz building is so very important to the city that no cost is too great to “save” it.

To summarize, for at least thirty years the structure has rotted, but only now, with a crucial municipal election coming in 2019, does time suddenly become of the essence. The decision about Reisz must be made right away, with as little transparent public debate as possible, or else the city’s forward progress will be halted dead in its tracks.

And people still wonder why I’m cynical. 

So it is that even by the perennially underachieving standards of New Albany political decision-making, proponents of the Reisz renovation have mustered weak, wearying and dubious arguments in support of this project.

For example, there’s the “wave the bloody shirt of macho civic pride” argument. Gahan asks how we can countenance our neglected and dilapidated (my words, not his) city department sycophants laboring in an outdated and cramped shambles of a shared city-county building owned by our mortal enemies in Floyd County government, who long ago supplanted heinous Jeffersonville as the proper object of patriotic New Albanian scorn.

In short: If the city doesn’t immediately get its own pad, that dastardly Mark Seabrook wins!

As such, Gahan proposes to improve and enlarge the work space in a future Reisz City Hall, but seriously, do a couple dozen city employees really need four times more office space in this age of the microchip, when administrative needs are ever more reduced and compacted?

Besides, no other City Hall rehousing options have been explored. None of the many other historic buildings in need of refurbishment have been considered, and new construction evidently is off the table. Not once has it been explained why the cavernous Reisz building is the only possible solution to an insignificant problem — apart from “Big Daddy G says so.”

However, there are at least 8,500,000 solid reasons to be wary, because since the Reisz dream was announced less than a year ago, the annual cost to the city for these new digs already has more than doubled, to $570,000 per year on a handy 15-year, rent-to-own payment plan, with the necessity of TIF pledges as collateral.

Imagine how $570,000 each year might address the genuine needs of city residents, like decent housing, workforce training, transit choices or remedying our shrinking urban tree canopy. It might even finance the long overdue fulfillment of Gahan’s pledge to institute rental property inspections, which he’s hoping we’ve forgotten. We haven’t. 

The most unconvincing argument of all comes from Barksdale, who claims this total investment of at least $8.5 million to provide enhanced luxury government space is fully justified because it will definitively prove at long last to skeptical townspeople that City Hall is willing to put “skin in the game.”

To support this breathtaking instance of middle school adolescent playground logic, Barksdale asserts that during the past decade, entrepreneurs and private investors have poured somewhere around $60 million into downtown.

Stopped analog clocks can be trusted twice a day, and Barksdale is correct; he may be lowballing the amount, but he’s drawing a mistaken conclusion.

To understand why, consider that few, if any, of the incentives, abatements and giveaways routinely awarded by the city to corporate entities like Sazerac have yet to land in the deserving laps of these independent business operators.

They’ve gone it almost entirely alone, and an uncommon number have succeeded, and yet somehow from this reality Barksdale conjures an indie business community desperately begging the city to display insane fiscal profligacy by pumping $8.5 million into a single downtown building rather than into downtown as a whole.

It’s an “all eggs into one basket” proposition, moving a small number of government employees already adequately housed a mere stone’s throw away, while at the same time taking the Reisz building permanently off the tax rolls, and worse, foolishly depleting economic development resources to facilitate the wants of four-times-bigger government, as opposed to the needs of private sector employers, or more importantly, of ordinary citizens all over town who are struggling to make ends meet.

Barksdale’s elitist view of what constitutes “skin in the game” doesn’t make sense. It’s our “skin” as citizens, not his (or Gahan’s). Simply stated, this is sheer, contrived, oblivious and unadulterated hokum.

Councilman Scott Blair, an independent, sensibly suggests (to Deaf ears) that “putting skin in the game” might be more effective, and more prudent financially, if mayor and council worked together to prioritize the Reisz building’s redemption via the private sector, with the city devoting reasonably-scaled dollops of economic development funds and subsidies to help someone else save the building and keep it taxable.

Blair understands that what downtown stakeholders don’t really need is $8.5 million devoted to the enhancement of mayoral megalomania, while masquerading as historic preservation fetishism. However, downtown stakeholders actually do need some skin, just not in the form of a government-only housing upgrade.

They need infrastructure improvements aimed at greater walkability, bikeability and access for the disabled.

They — we — need more residents living downtown … fast and modern internet access … grassroots programs for small business … capable workers … a structured plan for branding and marketing … and two-way streets — not like Gahan’s half-assed pavement enhancement expenditure last year, but in the form of reliable transparency and regular communication from, and with, City Hall itself.

Grassroots support, not trickle down; and moreover, stakeholders in the remainder of the city need these investments and innovations, as well.

Mark these words: Gahan’s chronic neglect of the periphery, and his occasional colonial abuses of outlying neighborhoods (ask Mt. Tabor Road residents “why he’s here”) are about to become an important campaign issue for 2019.

If it’s true that a government building stuffed with government workers can be a viable tool for revitalization — and this notion is highly debatable — wouldn’t it be a better idea to move City Hall to the moribund Colonial Manor shopping center on Charlestown Road, thereby helping to revitalize a “neglected” corridor that really needs it?*

Overall, considering the many issues we face citywide, ask yourself truthfully: can $8.5 million to overhaul the Reisz building for government use, and government use alone, genuinely help resolve a single one of them?

No, and anyone who thinks ordinary New Albanians-on-the-street are clamoring for this potted project has descended into self-delusion. If put to a referendum, a new or remodeled City Hall would lose at least 70% – 30%. and every ranking political suit in town knows it, hence the cloak and dagger back alley pursuit of Gahan’s and Barksdale’s narrow and expensive goal.

I generally favor historic preservation, and it was a punch to the gut to watch the wrecking ball fell Haughey’s Tavern, but it’s past the time for us to recognize that preservationists are not immune to jumping the shark.

Remember when the “cost be damned” necessity of the moment was a heroic crusade to save the tiny Emery’s Ice Cream building?

I, too, advocate the rehabilitation of the Reisz, but in the rational and integrated fashion suggested by Scott Blair. A final council vote remains, and it’s still possible for reason to prevail if one of four councilmen, all Democrats, come back to earth: Nash, Phipps, Caesar or McLaughlin. Courage, anyone?

The lessons of the past also mustn’t be forgotten. Gahan’s rapacious, self-serving and politically motivated calculations have brought us to this absurd juncture.

In effect, the mayor is endorsing an equation whereby Barksdale and the historic preservationist contingent assert that the Reisz building must be saved at any cost, and by extension, only government can shoulder the burden of unlimited costs since limitless money is what government is here to provide for ideas precisely like this.

Boundless money … and for what?

A building, not people.

This is the final, infuriating insult, and it is inexplicable to me that Barksdale and the lock-step community pillars being pushed to the lectern in support of this extravagance (although not Gahan himself, who as usual, hasn’t bothered to appear publicly at all) blithely favor bilking taxpayers to the tune of $8.5 million to save this single building, but when they’re asked about Gahan’s eagerness to demolish public housing units without a coherent plan to rehouse the flesh-and-blood humans who’ll be displaced, they no longer have anything to say, and head straight for the exits.

Eyes turn to the ceiling, crickets chirp and pins drop. Somewhere, a dog balefully yowls.

It’s the silence of the shams.

They adore bright shiny objects, not so much the vulnerable. Glorious government buildings, not persons in need. Plaques for the self-anointed pillars, not assistance for the oppressed. Disney-fried grandiosity in bricks and mortar … not human beings.

Hypocrisy on this colossal scale unfortunately isn’t novel in New Albany, though it’s no less sickening when it flares.

However, we can rejoice, because in less than a year, there’ll be the opportunity to rectify the robotic empathy imbalance by way of the ballot’s historically restorative power.

Until then, please call your councilman and ask him (they’re all men, you know, each and every one of them) to explain how an $8.5 million City Hall helps resolve anything at all — and if they don’t hang up on you, send their answers to NA Confidential.

* with a nod to the Bookseller.

Recent columns:

June 7: ON THE AVENUES: Taco Bell has as much to do with “local business” as Jeff Gahan does with “quality urban design principles.”

There was no column on May 31.

May 24: ON THE AVENUES: Long live Keg Liquors Fest of Ale, an indisputable annual beer institution.

May 17: ON THE AVENUES: Ghosts within these stones, defiance in these bones.

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