KEVIN LEININGER: ‘North River’ deal was done on faith; now it’s taxpayers’ turn to pray
People who want something so much they’re willing to do almost anything to get it sometimes make decisions that challenge disbelief. Fort Wayne residents witnessed a classic example this week as the administration of Mayor Tom Henry, five members of City Council and owners of the so-called “North River” property agreed to spend $4.63 million of taxpayers’ money now and who knows how much later while denying the public and even themselves the information needed to make a fully-informed decision.
As I reported Friday, IU Health made its potential interest in the 30 acres just north of downtown clear to council members prior to Tuesday’s 5-3 vote — potentially generating enough investment, taxes, jobs and spin-off economic activity to pay for the land and the cost of what was an industrial site for more than a century. But while IU Health’s possible involvement may help explain why some members were willing to support a deal they openly criticized, it does not fully excuse a vote that exposed taxpayers to an unknown, open-ended risk and absolved responsible parties for having reached a new high — or low — for lack of transparency.
Secrecy is often required in economic development deals and is even legally justified when public bodies are negotiating to buy property. In this case, however, there was little danger the city would be denied its opportunity to acquire a site officials consider crucial to long-term plans to redevelop downtown and the riverfront. I reported in June the city was negotiating with owner Calhoun Investments LLC, and the deal was finalized the following month. Yet the administration sent the proposal to city council mere weeks before the purchase agreement was set to expire Friday. The sale closed Thursday.
Why the stealth? City spokesman John Perlich explained it this way: “The purchase agreement was signed at the end of July. Following that, there was a considerable amount of time invested in prep work with consultants for the meetings/presentations to members of City Council and working with the Capital Improvement Board on the funding mechanism. We also were in the middle of the 2018 budget discussions.”
But that argument is unconvincing because council members and citizens alike are more than capable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. Had council members been allowed to see a 2007 environmental assessment of the property months ago instead of a superficial briefing by city officials last week, they would have had time to analyze the findings to determine whether estimates of a clean-up costing only hundreds of thousands of dollars was legitimate. Instead, they were asked to trust a process that had invited only doubt.
That was, to a large degree, the fault of the owners of the former OmniSource property. In addition to paying about $1 million above the appraised value and agreeing to indemnify the owners for all obligations related to contamination, a confidentiality agreement prevented the administration from sharing the 2007 assessment with members of council until after their vote. Council members who offered to sign a non-disclosure agreement were denied unless they also signed the indemnification papers. City officials said it was the best deal they could get, and even though all nine council members voiced misgivings about the process, the bare minimum five voted yes anyway.
Glynn Hines, D-6th, called it the worst-negotiated deal ever presented for council’s approval. His assessment was pretty accurate.
I don’t blame members of the Rifkin family, former owners of OmniSource, for protecting their interests and negotiating the best deal possible. Some of them have expressed frustration with the city over the years, complaining that officials have been quick to make plans for their property while excluding them from the decision-making process. Some officials, on the other hand, have suggested the owners are insufficiently public-minded. Perhaps those feelings prevented a compromise that would have protected the interests of all parties — especially the taxpayers.
This may indeed turn out to be the great deal everyone hopes it will be. For now, though, that reality is more faith than fact. But there’s one thing we know for sure already: No matter what happens on the property, no matter how low or high the eventual clean-up bill is, the agreement guarantees Fourth Street from Harrison Street to Spy Run Boulevard will forever “be named ‘Rifkin Way,’ ‘Rifkin Boulevard’ or some other such similar name.”
Such honors ordinarily are bestowed in exchange for donations, not “trust us” deals made at proverbial gunpoint. But then, “ordinary” doesn’t begin to describe what has just happened — which makes it more likely we’ll see more of the same in the future.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.