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Commentary: A River City Shakedown

The former Phoenix Hill Tavern
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The former Phoenix Hill Tavern

The threat: abandonment of two major development projects after tearing down historic buildings and closing a popular night spot. The payoff: $10.4 million in public money. The Mark: Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration.

Edwards Companies, a developer from Columbus, Ohio, has proposed major new projects at the sites of the Phoenix Hill Tavern and Mercy Academy. The company has already cleared the Mercy property.

Now, after city officials agreed to offer the company $7.5 million in tax incentives, Edwards is asking for nearly $3 million more – and suggesting it will abandon both properties without it.

After all, why spend your own money when other people’s money is available?

This is a classic shakedown. Reneging on an already sweet deal is poor form.

I have many questions, but only vague platitudes have been offered for answers.

When did it become OK for a developer to gain waivers and variances from the city for a project and then come back to the table for additional special treatment? The city negotiated in good faith, and those variances and waivers already represent a compromise with the developer.

What are the projects we’re missing out on because we don’t have a level playing field with a well-defined proposal process when allocating public subsidies? If this goes through, what incentive do future developers have to negotiate in good faith?

With the modern building and design codes and the intimate involvement of the government in zoning and permitting, it does make sense to lower the cost of development by offering targeted incentives in certain cases. That is not the issue here.

Instead, we have backroom negotiations and huge amounts of money at stake without the community being invited to the table. Only high stakes players are allowed to share in the fun while we, the public, wait to see what hand we are dealt.

Are we investing in our community’s future? Or are we the chumps who mortgage our future for a ribbon cutting?

What does it say about our political environment when a developer has the audacity to accept huge public subsidies for a private project and then threatens to abandon the project unless an even larger amount of public dollars is approved?

Maybe this would be acceptable if the public treasury was busting at the seams, but the opposite is true. We can barely afford to fill potholes, let alone pave our existing roads.

A city that’s secure in its regulations and governing structure calls a spade a spade. In this case, Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration has told this developer it already has its deal. And if that’s not enough, then Edwards Companies should hit the road.
WFPL publishes commentaries on Fridays. Read more.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.

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