At issue is $2.5 million in city-funded streetscape and infrastructure improvements planned along the mostly vacant block slated to be converted into trendy apartments, restaurants, shops and offices. There's no doubt the improvements have been planned for some time: I reported them as far back as last October, and the streetscape work was discussed at the council table the night it approved the loan from the fund created by the sale of the old city electric utility.
But the project council considered Jan. 24 was explicitly defined as the renovation of several historic buildings and the construction of a new one at a cost of about $32.2 million. Streetscape improvements were not included in the project's scope or in the accompanying list of funding needs and sources.
That might not seem like a big deal except for one thing: In the project's ultimately successful bid for $6.9 million from the state's Regional Cities program, the $2.5 million city streetscape grant was listed among the financing commitments in support of a project expected to cost about $34.5 million.
And that, suggest some council members, represents an additional appropriation of local public funds that would invoke the so-called "Jehl Amendment" and void the Legacy loan, without which other funding sources could also be in jeopardy.
"I held my nose and voted for (the loan) but I wanted to protect the taxpayer so I asked for the amendment," said Jehl, R-2nd, a member of the 7-2 majority that passed the loan in January. "It was a tough vote anyway, and the more I see the more disillusioned I am."
Paul Ensley, R-1st, and Jason Arp., R-4th, vote against most economic development projects and opposed the Landing loan as well. They, too, wonder how $2.5 million in streetscape work is not part of the project one day and a "committed" part of it the next even though council — which would have to approve the work — has not even considered it yet.
But the president of the Downtown Development Trust, the not-for-profit organization that acquired the Landing properties to be redeveloped and selected the Model Group as developer, insists the discrepancy was forthright, legitimate and in the best interest of both the project and the public.
"The 'capital stack' shown on the Legacy loan application . . . was specifically for the work that was the responsibility of the Model Group," Mac Parker said in a statement to The News-Sentinel. It did not include "work that, in everyone's mind, was later to be a much broader streetscape undertaking by the city that, while not focusing specifically on the Landing alone, would include that project."
But why list streetscape in the Regional Cities application if it is not part of the "project" envisioned in council's Legacy loan? Simple, according to Parker: That 'capital stack' "was for the entire project, not just for Model's eight buildings. This simply enabled the Model Group to leverage the availability of Regional Cities dollars.
In other words, showing a larger commitment of local government funds made the project more attractive to members of the Regional Development Authority who approve the grants. When I asked RDA member Jeff Turner what he thought of the project's shifting cost and scope, he said: "I simply don’t know. Will have to look into it."
On the other hand, if the $2.5 million for streetscape work had been included in the Legacy loan application, Jehl said he probably would have voted against it. At least six of nine council members must approve the use of Legacy funds.
All of which makes Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, just a bit uneasy. He's not ready to call for a repeal of the Landing's loan, but he did say "it's always nice to present the same numbers. You should keep things consistent so there's no issue of deception."
Precisely. In a court of law, Parker probably has the better argument. But with other big-ticket projects on the horizon, officials should be eager to build public confidence and trust in economic development efforts. That trust can only be undermined by the perception, justified or not, that facts are situational.
The Landing is a worthwhile project, but from now on supporters should pick a number and stick with it. The same goes for all future projects — however they're defined.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.