Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Free" Money for Downtown Wilmington "Lures" Total Prosperity...Again!

That's right folks. We are in a once in a lifetime position. The federal government has given Wilmington almost a quarter of a million dollars for "free"! All to patch up Riverfront Park in downtown.

The $247,500 grant is to be used for planning and executing downtown improvements, and was initially earmarked for turning the Thalian Hall parking lot into a park back in 2007. But according to downtown denizen-in-chief and president of WDI John Hinnant, those pesky citizens and their opposition thwarted that plan. This time, the downtown oligarchy will have their way, regardless of any mere wishes from the public. Groups in addition to WDI, including Cape Fear Future and the Chamber of Commerce have decided it's a good idea, and so far be it from the taxpayers of this city to have any say in the matter.

Interestingly, there is no new and enticing argument to garner public support (as if this was something that was of any concern). Downtown talking heads, as well as members of city council are still dragging out the same tired saw about "luring" and "attracting" downtown residents and visitors. Yawn. If I had a nickel for every time I heard this speech being presented as the end all be all to our economic woes - if only we spend a little more money on this development, or that convention center; I would probably have more money than the grant itself.

The new park is being promoted as the great economic savior to the downtown plight, as local leaders let us in on some of their plans, in this Star News article:

What the park will transform into is unclear. The city is open to ideas.
Anyway, at least this federal grant will take us into the great new dawn of economic prosperity:

Although $247,500 is a good start, it's unlikely to be enough to complete all phases of the project, which include park improvements at the Hilton and Coast Guard parking lots. Those phases are a ways off, too, considering the city doesn't own either space, Padgett said.
Well, maybe not. Unless of course we simply purchase the parking lots from the Hilton and Coast Guard! Problem solved!

Hinnant says that more parks downtown will spur development and bring more people to the downtown area. Councilwoman Laura Padgett said that private partnership with the city is critical in this initiative "if it's going to get the desired manicured parks and amenities that draw residents and businesses". After all the money we have wasted, starting with a $35.5 million bond in 2006 on parks and amenities, one would think that it's way past time for a new argument.

The Star News just recently reported that Wilmington-area unemployment continues to plague its citizens. After all of the taxpayer money that has been spent in the last two years on parks and developments and handouts, all because it will be just the thing to "lure" and "attract" businesses and people here; it looks like we still have nothing to show for it - other than taxpayer-held debt of course. Unemployment in the Wilmington area has been hovering at and around 10% for over two years.

The power cabal in City Hall spends most of its time figuring out how to spend more money on the downtown area - and they do a pretty damn good job of pulling it off. However, there's always one more milestone to pass before we finally hit the pot of gold at the end of the great big government rainbow.

The newest idea is that now we need a more downtown-focused marketing campaign. Yeah, that's it. Then those elusive businesses and people will surely come from all over then. Mayor Saffo put it this way, “It’s going to take either all those people coming together to try to identify what they want, or it’s going to take some individuals willing to set out there and bring all those stakeholders together,”.

See? They've got it all figured out. It makes perfect sense. Building a convention center, four parking decks, a huge wooden walkway along the entire riverfront, purchasing every bare piece of land, dozens of parks, subsidizing private development, streetscaping downtown streets, and all other forms of taxpayer-funded enterprise wasn't quite enough to "lure" those darn businesses and people - even though at the time, each one of those projects was "just the thing" that we needed for total economic prosperity, according to our visionary leaders and downtown elites.

But now, we are to forget about the mountains of taxpayer dollars poured into the great gaping pit of government-sponsored downtown central planning, and believe yet again, that these new initiatives are the magic bullet that will finally bring all of that feel-good, utopian happiness to our fair city. After all, this newest project is courtesy of the federal government! The leaders of downtown are so proud of themselves, finding federal money to spend on something; other than just local tax dollars; as if our local taxpayers do not pay federal taxes as well.

Oh, and please pay no attention to the dirty little details like, who will pay in the future once the federal dollars run out; or who will pay for ongoing maintenance and upkeep; or who will pay for additional manpower; or who will pay for new utilities and services; and so forth. Just keep repeating to yourself "free money!" and all of your troubles will go away. Keep reminding yourself what Saffo, Padgett, Hinnant, and the rest keep telling you - that if only we execute this latest taxpayer-funded plan, program, or development; it will be just what we need to "lure" and "attract" businesses and epople to downtown Wilmington!

Monday, May 16, 2011

BREAKING: NHC Commission Passes $4 Mil Land Deal 4-to-1; Barfield Omits Nay Votes

During the New Hanover County Commission meeting Monday morning, one issue garnering a lot of press was that of the purchase of more than 80 acres in the Smith Creek area for parks and amenities for almost $4 million. Several initial reports stated that the vote was unanimously in favor of the expenditure; however, upon close examination, it was noticed that the call for "all those opposed" by Chairman Barfield was apparently never made, and therefore the lone dissenting vote of Brian Berger, was never heard.

The Wilmington Watcher was able to catch up with Berger immediately after the meeting. "I did not vote in favor of the measure; and since the call for those opposed was never made, I had to check with the clerk to make sure that she had properly recorded my vote against it", he said.

As of this writing, it is not known as to the legality of the procedure, and the omission of the nay votes. Stay tuned to The Wilmington Watcher for updates on this developing story.

The video of the meeting is available online, in which the omission can clearly be seen, as well as Berger's silence during the aye vote. See item #13, within the last minute of the segment here: http://newhanovernc.swagit.com/player.php?refid=05162011-14

Also noteworthy, were the mathematical justifications of such an exorbitant purchase by county taxpayers by both Commissioner Davis and Commissioner Catlin. Davis, who calls those who question these actions "naysayers" and "skeptics", reports that David Swain, who bought the entire parcel that the county is purchasing a portion of, paid $6,255,000 for 140 acres. The county bought 85 acres for $3.8 million; equaling a difference of $27 per acre between what Swain paid and what the county is paying.

Much defense of the purchase was made based on the fact that it is being bought with parks bond money, which is issued debt that must be paid back by taxpayers with interest; a practice that is often criticized by conservatives as being presented dishonestly, as if it is money that has been set aside, or saved for a particular purpose; when in fact, it is nothing but potential debt with interest.

Interestingly, Davis, a Republican, said, "I realize we have this bond money; and I realize we don't have to use it - we don't have to spend it". It is often misreported that since the county has already been issued the bond money that it must be spent; however, the county commission, if being guided by concern for the taxpayer and fiscally responsible ideals, could decide to use the issued funds to pay down the existing debt, and relieve the taxpayers altogether, instead of continuing to spend the money, adding to the principle and accrued interest that taxpayers must pay back.

Commissioner Rick Catlin, also a Republican, echoes Davis by saying that the county got a great deal because if they had to purchase all of the land, instead of just what they wanted, they would have had to pay money for expenses and upkeep while waiting to sell it off in the next year or so.

Parks Director Jim McDaniel reported that the county got "90% of the lake frontage" in the 85 acres that the county purchased from David Swain's 140 acres. By all accounts, the county claims that it got the best land out of the total property, and even admits that Swain could have chosen to develop all of the land as homesites and make a fortune. However, for some reason, Swain purchased the 140 acres, and sold the very best part of the land to the county at cost, for no reported benefit to himself or his business whatsoever; truly a rarity among business philanthropy; especially when taxpayer money is at stake.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wilm. City Council Votes to Deny Property Rights

Last night's Wilmington City Council meeting included a much ballyhooed revision to the city's Land Development Code in the Central Business District downtown, which will in effect curb the rights of property owners for the sake of historic preservation. The new rules pile heaps of regulations, penalties, and red tape onto already over-burdened property owners in the sacred Central Business District and historic overlay areas of downtown Wilmington. Buildings, whose owners may deem them eyesores, dangerous, or simply have plans of demolishing them in order to construct new development and new economic activity; must first comply with the bureaucratic process of determining the historic implications of the building, of which will spell out the outcome of its status.

In the ever-present pursuit of manipulating facts with patronization and misinformation, City Manager Sterling Cheatham refers to the resolution as a "citizen-initiated preservation ordinance"; as if it were the people of Wilmington whose wishes suddenly had unprecedented relevance in the affairs of City Hall. In truth, it was initiated by the boards of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and Wilmington Downtown, Inc. (WDI); two exclusive clubs of highbrow downtown socialites, whose concerns usually involve matters such as whether to use gold or silver embossing on this year's invitations to the finest social gala of the season.

However, these groups exhibit incredible control over the regulations concerning downtown Wilmington; and they like to throw their weight around. WDI, positions itself as an "economic development" organization - that ubiquitous distinction that garners both praise and awe from government insiders, regardless of merit, performance, accomplishment, or activity. The mere mention of the term inspires local elected leaders to become almost giddy with willingness to hand over large sums of taxpayer money to their efforts, regardless of any measurable or identifiable metric of economic development.

The historic preservation ordinance, which passed council's first reading, and will resurface for a second in the near future, was notably rejected by the city's Planning Commission, whose role is to identify and support positive growth and development strategies for the city's future. Their stamp of rejection signals a concern that the added government red tape will inhibit growth.

The preservation resolution also empowers the Historic Preservation Commission directly over a property owner's fate with regard to his/her property. In an incredible shift of power, a property owner who owns a building located within the district and identified as having a historic designation, must appeal to the unelected Historic Preservation Commission to attempt to have the status removed. The Commission may approve or reject the request based on a complicated scorecard that considers the historical significance of the structure.

The new rules offer building height as a carrot to be dangled in front of developers for their compliance with the various aspects of the new regulations. It is even being called "incentivizing"; although the only incentive to be gained is further restriction - but to a lesser degree. However, as is usually the case, government proves disconnected with real-world reality. Several downtown investor/land owners demonstrate the futility of the so-called incentives as recorded in the minutes of the Wilmington Planning Commission's meeting in which support for the new regulations was denied:

Mr. Darryl Barker, architect downtown, stated he has an issue with the added bonus height. A picture was shown about how it would work, but when you get into the actual constructability of some of the setbacks, it is economically unfeasible to do. It is also a problem from a Code standpoint. There’s probably 5 or 6 issues that come into play in building a high-rise which is anything over 75’ to the highest occupied level. One you get above that, the building becomes a high-rise. Therefore, you’re limited to just one extra floor of construction before you get up to the 100’ height limit. There’s really not going to be an incentive for someone to do that when considering the added cost that will be incurred by getting up to that height. He pointed out that a one-story building with good walls and a good roof, if it’s classified, it will forever remain a one-story building. Having a one-story building in the CBD is not economically sound. He is the owner of a one-story buildings on the list and it sits back about 45’ from the street. If he was to tear down that building, nothing could be built in its place. He felt there should be more input from stakeholders and architects to help make it a better process. 
Mr. Todd Toconis stated he is a homeowner. He focused on two properties that he owns or owned. The first is 108 Walnut, a bar called Drifters. It was a gas station built in the 1940s or 50s. It is listed as a contributing structure. The last little gas station like this downtown was torn down by the City and is now a park. This proposal will make it very difficult for him to do anything with that property because it sits so far back from the street. If the building was torn down, nothing could be built there. Another property on the list is 110 Grace Street which used to be the entrance to Bob Warwick’s office. He tore that building down ten years ago. It was on this list as a 1935 commercial building. It was a one-story building and he didn’t think there was anything significant about it. That is where the new 8-story Marriott Hotel will be built. If that old one-story building was still there, the 8-story building could not be built there. Only a 1-1/2 story building could be put there. He wants his rights protected, but he saw this as taking his rights.

The Wilmington 20/20 Future Land Use Plan, which serves as the working doctrine for council's actions, states:

Older buildings with architectural significance located outside of protected historic districts are vulnerable to undesirable alterations that could leave an indelible mark on both the structure and the streetscape. The potential loss of craft or irreplaceable materials from a bygone era would have a serious impact on the urban fabric. Therefore, local historic district designation of structures in the other appropriate portions of downtown could help prevent future destruction.
However, examples of such "indelible marks" are in short supply. A property owner may wish to utilize his/her land in such a way that pays dividends in the form of new construction, such as for lease property, office space, apartments, etc. However, this would jeopardize the historic value of the location, if an undesirable - yet deemed "historic" structure had to be removed. According to the 20/20 plan, such private property owner capitalists are viewed as "threats":

With a growing market for new downtown development, potential threats to the urban fabric will increase. Investors will desire higher-density buildings to offset land costs and citizens may fight for historic preservation to maintain a lower-density character and high quality architecture.

Interestingly, the 20/20 plan mentions such denial of property rights in the form of forced preservation as necessary for "economic vitality"; ironically missing the threat to economic vitality that is posed by such nanny laws:

The identification, protection, and promotion of historic resources is critical to maintaining the sense of place that contributes significantly to the quality of life and economic vitality of Wilmington.

Onerous regulation and top heavy restriction for the sake of serving the exclusive downtown elite; to the detriment of economic prosperity and individual rights has become commonplace with the current cabal occupying City Hall. Such burdensome governance highlights the critical importance of citizen involvement in this current year's upcoming elections; and with local government in general.