Commentary

Wilson: City should not pay for shopping center upgrade

CorrespondentJune 13, 2014 

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Entrepreneurs Larry and Denise Hester came to Durham years ago to do good for the black community (so proclaims their development company’s website) and ended up doing well (by skillfully mining the city’s loosely administered business assistance programs).

Now the Hesters, who cost the city millions when Rolling Hills went belly up 20 years ago, are back at the trough. This time, they want $500,000 in city matching funds to spiff up their shopping centers on Fayetteville Street.

The Hesters own Phoenix Square and Phoenix Crossing through their development firm, M&M Inc. The shopping centers face each other as a gateway to the N.C. Central University district.

With handouts such as this, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden goes on autopilot: “I support the project wholeheartedly, with no reservations,” she told her fellow City Council members last month.

Moreover, McFadden said, she was sure N.C. Central students would be pleased with the redevelopment

The students should be more than pleased. They should be elated. It’s not their money that would go into the shopping centers.

In fact, not one public dollar should be spent on cosmetic improvements to the Hesters’ properties. Both shopping centers have a good mix of tenants and few dark offices.

Do Phoenix Square and Phoenix Crossing really need a re-do? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes. These aptly named gateways in the rough country just south of the Durham Freeway are tired and unappealing

However, their fate should not be tied to the public purse, which is exactly what Kevin Dick, the city’s economic development officer, would have the council do.

In the Hesters’ case, the operative words should be once burned, twice shy. Their bungled attempt to develop Rolling Hills subdivision in the early 1990s still haunts City Hall.

As Councilman Eugene Brown put it, Rolling Hills was “an absolute, complete fiasco” that led not only to throwing bushels of public dollars into the winds, but also to years of legal brawling with the Hesters’ Southeast Durham Development Corp.

The Hesters possess chutzpah of a very high order. Southeast Durham Development fought the city tooth and claw to prevent repossession of the 19-acre Rolling Hills project. That finally occurred in 2003, and now a St. Louis developer is nearing completion of what should have been.

The city’s taste-of-ashes experience with Southeast Durham Development remains so strong that you would think Kevin Dick, of all people in city government, would shy away from another round with the Hesters

But no, Dick seems comfortable with their proposal for $500,000 in matching funds to help remediate what he calls “disinvestment” in the Fayetteville Street gateway.

Councilman Brown, who has an admirable talent for riding herd on tax monies, properly noted that if the Hesters have disinvested in maintenance of their own properties, the city has no responsibility to make up for it. And certainly not when virtually all of the space in the two shopping centers is under lease.

Even Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Diane Cattoti, two progressive lights who generally regard government as a guarantor of last resort, are backing away from this one.

In fact, Bell was so wary of the Hesters’ proposal that he spoke directly to them, implying it takes high-octane gall to come before the council and again ask the city to buy into one of their ventures.

Bell was especially incensed because, as he reminded the Hesters, “I remember very distinctly who fought very hard” to prevent the city from saving what it could of its investment after the implosion of Rolling Hills.

Every council member – yes, you too, Cora Cole-McFadden – should follow Bell’s lead on this issue.

If the Hesters need to refurbish their shopping centers, that’s their problem, not the taxpayers’. That entitlement attitude is the Durham Disease, and the cure is free: It’s called the no vaccine.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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