Saturday, September 26, 2009

Madison flirts with the Edifice Complex again

Summer Solstice, Belatedly
The Edgewater Hotel pier has always been a great place to enjoy a couple tall, cold ones and enjoy the sunset on a warm summer evening. Would the injection of millions in taxpayer financing would make this a significantly better experience? Your answer probably says a lot about your feelings about downtown real estate development in recent years.

When the mayor and the City Council think about tax incremental financing, they like to think big. At least that's the impression you get when you see them turn down a $300,000 request from a biotech company that would actually create well-paid jobs and yet continue to flirt with the idea of providing $16 million for the proposed Edgewater Hotel expansion on Lake Mendota, which might or might not provide a cool public plaza on the lake, but beyond that would provide few actual economic benefits except perhaps some more low-paid hotel service sector jobs.

Mark Eisen has a good column about the issue in Isthmus with more background.
What can one make of the city council's recent rejection of a tiny $300,000 TIF for Danisco USA, the Danish owner of the old Marschall dairy lab? The multinational corporation was considering a phased $50 million expansion here, but now may turn to its American branches in Waukesha and Rochester, N.Y. At stake were an estimated 179 new jobs — not just professional positions, but blue-collar jobs that pay a family-supporting hourly wage of $16 to $23. How foolish of City Hall.

City leaders need to focus TIF on job creation. In the case of the central city, that means unlocking the largely dormant economic potential of the east rail corridor. How can the city capitalize on Google's beachhead on Blount Street? What can be done to advance the University Research Park's newly opened Metro Innovation Center in the old Marquip building?

Surprisingly, most of the discussion over the Edgewater project has concerned its design and appropriateness for the venerable Mansion Hill historic district. A better question: Just what the heck is the city getting for its $16 million?
Haven't we learned anything from our experience with the "condo magnet," the Overture Center, and the downtown condo glut that followed? Sure, the Edgewater needs a facelift, and a small public subsidy wouldn't hurt, as Eisen suggests. But $16 million in this awful economy? Surely we can do a better job of thinking through the economic benefit of our public dollars.

Proponents of the $16 million TIF might argue that the purpose of tax incremental financing isn't job creation -- it's expanding the property tax base. But who says we can't have both?

UPDATE: Chris Norris commented on my Flickr stream: "After reading the letter today from the managers of various downtown hotels concerning the Edgewater project, it's really hard for me to see it as a good thing." The letter may be self-serving, but it makes a lot of good points. Check it out at the link.

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