Published: Jul 28, 2012 01:45 PM
Modified: Jul 28, 2012 01:45 PM
Am I the only contrarian who has that queasy feeling in the gut about the City Councils enthusiasm for handing out $5.7 million in incentives to a Kentucky firm for rehabbing the Hill Building into an upscale hotel?
And not just a hotel, but also a $500,000 art museum?
City Manager Tom Bonfield admitted to a hint of doubt about the viability of the $48 million project, but tellingly tempered his words by saying experts think it will work.
Of course, when the entire City Council thinks its a good idea, behind the curve is not where Bonfield and his troops want to be.
Thus, the council has scheduled an Aug. 26 public hearing on the proposal by Louisville-based 21c Museum Hotels. Thats the time to speak up with your yay or nay.
This rehab plan is another one coming off the free-lunch shelf. In fact, by one projection, the city stands to recoup the $5.7 million and even make $3.7 million in profit if all works as planned for 20 years.
So wheres the free lunch? Tax revenues from the hotel and associated amenities such as a restaurant will generate the $5.7 million.
See, better minds than ours are on the job here. They have this thing all figured out.
But for this public investment to flourish, so must the 125-room hotel.
What if the project flops? Its happened many times in Durham over the past quarter-century.
Prime example: City Hall lost a cool $6 million on two failed bets to pump life into the Rolling Hills affordable housing development and is now embarked on a third try that puts $21 million at risk.
The city proposes to feed 21c Museum Hotels a dollop of dollars twice a year after the rehab begins, no later than June 30, 2013. Completion must come within two years.
Not worry about the Hill Building, says Mayor Bill Bell. If the projects not there, the moneys not there.
But if 21c stumbles at some future point, the citys contributions presumably will blow in the wind like the Rolling Hills stash. And therein lurks the risk: The hotel must meet city-specified occupancy and sales tax targets for the 20-year life of the public-private collaboration.
The idea that people will pay well above the norm for nights in a tony downtown hotel with art on the walls may seem a bit ditzy, but 21c apparently has made it work in Louisville. Now the firm is about to learn if the concept flies in Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark., home of Wal-Mart, as well as in Durham.
I and no doubt others who have reservations about entering into yet another public-private partnership as the economy continues to wheeze must ask the unavoidable question: If converting the 1937 Hill Building into a hotel-restaurant-art museum is so sure-fire, why mortgage the taxpayers?
The answer, Im convinced, is that 21c and other developers crave the comfort zone that comes with public participation. They believe that once local government has an anchor in a project, the risk of failure diminishes.
Still, if the city werent so far out a limb with Rolling Hills-Southside, even I might have a fever for the 21c deal. I might, but I dont.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.