Wednesday, March 14, 2007

YLNI Public Discussion On Harrison Square

Cross-Posted at Left of Centrist:

Tonight I attended the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana's panel discussion on Harrison Square held at the downtown library. They had a panel of 7 people - Mark Becker, Fort Wayne deputy mayor; Steve Brody, Harrison Square project manager; Dan Carmody, president of the Downtown Improvement District; Mark Pope, athletic director at IPFW; Steve Gard, owner of the Oyster Bar; and Wizards owners Jason Freier, CEO of Hardball Capital, and Chris Schoen, chairman of Barry Real Estate.

The meeting started by Becker and Brody commenting on various aspects of the project and then the entire panel took questions from the audience. The questions had to be submitted in writing and I thought this was a fantastic idea because it took the emotion and grandstanding out of the discussion. It also provided the panel an opportunity to answer more questions than would've otherwise been addressed. The downside of the panel discussion was that not one skeptic was on the panel. If this were being held by the administration then I could understand the omission but considering it was being held by a private community organization there really is no excuse. Especially when you take into account that two of the panelists (Pope and Gard) provided next-to-nothing towards the discussion.

However, I'm happy to report that while most of the details I've been waiting for weren't available, there WAS some new information given.

1. Mark Becker stated that 80% of the project funds will be generated by the project or TIF and 20% will be from CEDIT

2. Steve Brody said that the hotel details are still in discussion and should be wrapped up in the next several weeks. He also said that details were still being worked out between the city and Hardball Capital and that he expected those to be done in the next 2-3 weeks. Then he stated that he felt the project would be officially introduced to city council in the 2nd week of April with the hopes of construction commencing in late Summer or early Fall. I personally think this is a very aggressive timeline and I hope they do not rush the process just to meet these arbitrary dates.

3. Jason Freier said that since the city has already acquired the land they can "masterplan" the project and that this is a significant advantage over the piecemeal approach taken by other cities. He also said that they are trying to utilize the stadium as much as possible including large concerts, local bands, theatre and possibly football (the right field fence is being pushed back to accommodate a football field). He also mentioned that the structure will be grated such that it sits no higher than the Grand Wayne Center.

4. Chris Schoen said he thought the condos would range from 850-1200 sq ft and cost around $180k-$280k. Said the first floor of the building would be retail with floors 2-4 (and possibly 5) being used for condos. He also said that half the units would face the ballpark and all units would have balconies and a brick facade. He also said that he felt the downtown area would still have a ways to go before they could attract a grocery store even after the Phase1 development.

5. Jason Freier said that stadium operation is usually done by the city but they are willing to absorb a "significant portion" of operating costs. They will also contribute annually to a capital improvement fund that will help maintain the stadium over the 20 year lease period. He also said that the cheapest tickets will be less than the current cheapest ticket prices at the current stadium.

6. Mark Becker said that $10M in state CRED money goes away by the end of the year if they don't have a project in place.

7. 300K in attendance is the number being bantered around by everyone involved - this seems too high to me and especially in the long term.

8. Jason Freier reads the Downtown Fort Wayne Baseball Blog

9. HOK will design the stadium and those on the panel said they were the best in business

10. Dan Carmody said "Downtown ain't compelling". Of course even if you agree w/ that (which I don't), he's been the one in charge of correcting that problem.

Now my comments. My submitted question was:
"Will the city provide any long term benchmarks that we can use to judge the success of the project by?"

Becker stated that they would measure the amount of private investment downtown including the number of new and renovated homes. Unfortunately this answer shows that he either misunderstood the question or simply doesn't understand the concept of benchmarks. What he's referring to are the MEASURABLES by the which the benchmarks are judged. In other words the benchmarks are goals such as the AMOUNT of private investment EXPECTED. Without benchmarks it's very difficult to judge whether or not a project was successful and ultimately hold people accountable. Of course very few in government seem to take the idea of benchmarks and measurables seriously.

Next, there seems to be a lot of talk about retaining and attracting young professionals to the area and that somehow this project will help. I disagree with the premise of that argument. The truth is Fort Wayne has a shortage of JOBS for these people. If we had more jobs then more people would stick around. The idea that we're going to develop downtown into one that will compete with Indianapolis or Chicago is implausible. I truly don't see how this project will help CREATE JOBS. Will it help Lincoln Financial retain a few more younger workers? Probably. But for the investment we're making we could directly provide around 100 well-paying jobs for 5 years. If we're going to invest this money then we should be DAMN SURE we can do MUCH better than that and I haven't seen any argument that would convince me of that.

Finally, there was nothing presented that would remove me from the list of skeptics. But I am still patiently awaiting the details before making a final judgement...

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