Monday, February 23, 2009

Will taxpayers buy a bridge to bankruptcy?

Jobs are evaporating; times are tough and getting tougher. What percentage of its work force our society can tolerate being jobless for how long is something we may find out sooner than later.

One move governments can make to create jobs in such times is borrow money to build large projects that will hopefully be boons to the community in the future. Bridges, federal buildings and schools all over the country were constructed that way during the Depression.

Those Depression Era federal projects were financed on the backs of millions of taxpayers who were bound to pay down the debt for years to come. Collective public hope had to be transferred into currency. Under such circumstances, at the very least, due diligence had to be paid to make sure those projects were righteous in every way. Boondoggles like bridges to nowhere had to be avoided.

In hard times huge mistakes with public money can't be easily mopped up.

In the development game financing is the make or break aspect of the deal. Public money is an altogether different animal from private money. Privately raised dough can be bold and dynamic in ways that a government's money, prudent and slow-to-warm by nature, can’t.

Richmonders have seen what can happen when politicians and developers go wrong trying to be too nimble and dashing using public money -- the 6th Street Marketplace is probably the most notorious example.

In 1985 there were good reasons private money didn’t want to finance establishing what was essentially a suburban shopping mall downtown. People who didn’t like the project, then, were cast as anti-urban, anti-racial healing, and you name it. The push to bridge the street that had long been the recognized divide between whites and blacks in Richmond was too strong to stop.

What business sense the project didn’t make in black ink on white paper was trumped by its potent symbolism.

Fast forward to today: If private interests were poised to totally underwrite a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, and the private investors already had acquired the land to do it, the only real debate would be over how best to accommodate the project. How to facilitate it.

Why not? It would mean jobs.

But when private investors want local taxpayers to back them up, should their blue sky projections not pan out, that changes it.

If Bryan Bostic and his group of investors could swing the whole project without any risk to taxpayers, there would be no need to remember the 6th Street Marketplace. No need to wonder again about the strange financial history of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation.

While the VAPAF, the hybrid public/private partnership behind the ongoing renovation of the Carpenter Center (formerly the Loew’s) has run into all sorts of financial trouble and delays, three other things have happened to do with theaters in Richmond.
  • Private money renovated the old Towne Theater and reopened it as The National, a live music venue.
  • The Byrd Theatre, a 1927 movie palace still in operation, has been purchased by a private foundation and extensive renovations are underway.
  • Movieland, a 17-screen movie theater complex has been built inside an old locomotive factory by a cinema chain. With a parking lot for 800 cars, it is about to open at 1301 N. Boulevard.
All three of those deals were done without making taxpayers unwilling partners in the ventures. They were moves the public probably would not have been willing to back. If they fail, that’s capitalism. If they succeed, hopefully, everybody wins and the risk-takers will be rewarded appropriately.

If Richmond’s next baseball stadium is to be part of a bold vision -- located in a part of town many traditional baseball fans may avoid, so they will have to be replaced by new fans -- then it all needs to be done without one cent of taxpayer money being on the line. Other than ordinary infrastructure help from The City, it should be done by risk-takers seeking a profit.

A baseball stadium isn’t a school. We know Richmond needs new schools. And, we know Richmond doesn’t need another bridge to bankruptcy.

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