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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

History repeated itself in council's tax vote, and the deja vu must go on

City Councilman Michael Barranda, holding the microphone, on Tuesday waited to support an income-tax increase until the proposal had already been approved. But in 2007, John Crawford, in center, did the same thing on a controversial vote on another downtown revitalization project that ultimately was so successful he led the current effort to raise taxes for riverfront development and other uses. Tom Freistroffer, at left, also supported the 0.13 percent increase Tuesday. (News-Sentinel file photo)
City Councilman Michael Barranda, holding the microphone, on Tuesday waited to support an income-tax increase until the proposal had already been approved. But in 2007, John Crawford, in center, did the same thing on a controversial vote on another downtown revitalization project that ultimately was so successful he led the current effort to raise taxes for riverfront development and other uses. Tom Freistroffer, at left, also supported the 0.13 percent increase Tuesday. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, July 13, 2017 12:01 am

A packed public hearing featuring pleas to make Fort Wayne more attractive to young people followed by a 6-3 vote providing millions of dollars for a massive downtown improvement project — with one city councilman withholding his support until the contentious outcome had already been decided.

That describes what happened Tuesday when City Council approved a 0.13 percent increase in local income taxes to pay for riverfront development, sidewalks and alleys. But it also applies to a vote taken a little more than eight years earlier, when council approved the controversial Harrison Square project with an ambivalent John Crawford casting the last, superfluous "yes" vote.

This time around, however, Crawford wasn't a John-come-lately: The tax increase was his idea, and he successfully led the campaign to pass it because he hopes history repeats itself in an another and even more important way.

The issue in April 2007 was Harrison Square, a project estimated to cost up to $160 million that was to include a baseball stadium, hotel, apartments and commercial area. Most of the public seem opposed to the project, Crawford recalled, "and new information was coming in even at the last day. I wasn't sure what the right vote was. I knew we could build the stadium, but would we get private development afterward?

"If I had been playing politics I probably would have voted 'no' and been re-elected (Crawford was defeated in 2007 after also championing the city's no-smoking ordinance before returning to council in 2012). But I finally thought 'yes' was the right vote, and as things turned out it was."

The proof, Crawford insists, is the more than $200 million in private investment that has occurred near Parkview Field since it opened a decade ago, yielding such community assets as the Ash Brokerage headquarters, adjacent Skyline residential tower and the Cityscape Flats apartments and  townhouses.

"I've been convinced by the case study that it really did work. Young people want to live downtown, and the riverfront is a safer bet than the stadium was," he said, predicting that the city's projected $100 million riverfront expenditure will induce 10 times that amount in private investment. That's $1 billion, with a "B."

It pays to be as skeptical of such a claim as Crawford himself was eight years ago. There is as yet no real plan to attract restaurants, shops and bars to the riverfront area that, as of now, is little more than a $100 million park. And just as Councilman Russ Jehl Tuesday pointed out how most of the post-Parkview Field projects have been tax-subsidized, it's a good bet government incentives will be made available to businesses attracted by the riverfront.

"But there wasn't really a plan (for private development) with the stadium either," Crawford said, adding that when inducements spur private investment that would not happen otherwise, taxpayers and the entire community benefit in the long run.

There are legitimate countervailing views, of course, such as when Jason Arp., R-4th, speculated about how Fort Wayne might have benefited had taxpayers been allowed to spend more of their own money instead of having it distributed to downtown developers. But I'm persuaded that, overall, what has happened downtown in the last decade is in the city's best interest, and should be continued.

With construction on the riverfront's $26 million first phase already underway and a reliable  revenue stream in place for phases two and three, Crawford believes the private sector will have enough confidence in the riverfront project's viability to consider investing in its future.

A lot of "ifs," to be sure. But during his presentation Tuesday, Crawford embraced former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's conclusion that "consensus is the absence of leadership." In other words, sometimes it's necessary for public officials to take unpopular but calculated risks even if it's with other people's money.

Crawford is glad he did just that eight years ago. Hopefully Barranda, who finally supported the 0.13 percent increase after unsuccessfully trying to reduce the original ask of 0.15 to 0.10, will be able to say the same thing in a few years. But that's hardly assured, because the pursuit of another healthy case of civic deja vu did not end Tuesday — it began.  
 
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 kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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