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Friday, October 26, 2007

New Brighton NWQ - No Win Quagmire?

The news of New Brighton's litigation against Rottlund homes over the NW quadrant is starting to make the local papers. The 10/26 Pioneer Press has fairly in-depth coverage while the Strib's is more superficial. Actually both coverages were much kinder in reporting the situation than they could have been.

Mayor Larson's self-proclaimed PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) apparently has not been shaken. It has actually exceeded the "Positive Attitude" threshold and has been elevated to the category of "Wishful Thinking", and is headed full speed ahead to "Self Delusion" and "CYA".

From the Pioneer Press coverage today:
Despite the squabbling, New Brighton Mayor Steve Larson expressed optimism that the project will eventually succeed.

Earlier this month, city officials were publicly predicting ground would be broken for the housing in the spring.

"We're going to continue on," Larson said this afternoon. "It'll probably move at a faster pace now."

But Larson didn't say how things could move forward quickly with all the bad blood now flowing.
Apparently Mayor Larson didn't elaborate on how things will "move at a faster pace now". The only thing that will move at a faster pace is the transition of those responsible into full CYA mode with an election less than two weeks away.

This mess is exactly the kind of thing those of us who have been critical of the project for a long time were afraid would happen. Face it, the critics who asserted that the housing portion of the project disregarded the realities of the marketplace appear to have called the situation correctly. At this point, after the eminent domain abuse, legal problems, pollution cleanup, etc. the definition of "success" with respect to the project is rapidly being redefined in terms of minimizing the loss to the taxpayers and salvaging some sort of responsible redevelopment.

Larson and the "Gang of Three" (as well as the earlier "Gang of Four") on the council had plenty of opportunities to alter course over the several years this project has dragged out but used their majority to ram through their full-speed-ahead agenda for the NWQ over the objections of the two responsible council members (Doffing and Bauman) and many members of the public.

Interestingly the annual "Town Hall Meeting", after years of being held in early October, was quietly put off until after the upcoming election. Maybe the city should arrange for one real fast as I'm sure the residents have plenty of questions and comments.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention that there is an election in less than two weeks (November 6) where all of those primarily responsible for the current state of the NWQ are up for re-election?



Anonymous Long Time NB Resident said...

All of this could have been avoided if the current and past officials in New Brighton had done the proper investigation of the project, the land, and the companies they chose to do business with. That being said, getting angry at those responsible may make us feel better but won't fix the situation. But this is not to say that they should be allowed to continue to deepen the hole they've dug.

If redevelopment of the Northwest Quadrant was such a potential gold mine the city could have selected the best from a flood of proposals by private sector developers. When the flood of proposals did not happen the city decided to go into the redevelopment business because it was obvious the private sector was not going to come to the rescue. The elected leaders and commissions refused to accept that the private sector did not view redevelopment of the NWQ as a money making proposition and as such the chance that a city run effort could do so was slim to none. This was even before any consideration of the ethics of eminent domain came into play, which just added more controversy, financial pressures and litigation to the mix with the headstrong take no prisoners way the city chose to acquire the real estate for the project.

From the outside looking in it appears that the city was so desperate to get a deal done they were doing anything and everything to keep Rottlund happy and maintain the hope that the development would eventually happen. When the economic reality of a slumping housing market hit home Rottlund decided that they had had enough. Let's not forget that even when the housing market was still doing well the pre-sales of the NWQ housing units just was not happening. Maybe the city and/or Rottlund could have been more aggressive in promoting it, maybe a better marketing approach could have been taken, but for better or worse the effort came up way short of success by any objective measure.

Bottom line: we are where we are now largely because former City Manager Matt Fulton, former Mayor Bob Benke, then Council Member Steve Larson, and others in the city were so sure that they knew better than the private sector that they aggressively pursued this project over the criticisms of many citizens and some responsible elected officials. In spite of some problems with other Rottlund projects in New Brighton and neighboring suburbs the city decided to enter into a deal where Rottlund appeared to hold all of the cards. I have no doubt that Mayor Larson's claims that the city repeatedly went the extra mile to do what Rottlund wanted to make the deal go are true. The question is how wise was it to get the city into such a weak business position. All of these public officials are honorable men, but it appears that after they made a bad decision they all got tunnel vision in trying to make it a success. Even assuming good intentions the reality is that the NWQ project is a miserable failure and the city is clearly entering into a phase of salvage and cutting losses.

Over the many years this project has dragged out players have come and gone. Mayor Steve Larson is the current lead advocate of the project. Council member Mary Burg and former Council member Kim Moore-Sykes have apparently decided to stake their political futures on the NWQ legacy with Larson. Former City Manager Matt Fulton took off for safer employment when the opportunity presented itself a couple of years ago and has got to be relieved to have washed his hands of the considerable amount of dirt on them from his past involvement and support of the project. Former Mayor Benke is still involved in city politics and rumored to still have a lot, some actually consider an undue amount, of influence with a non-elected commission position that insulates him from voter removal.

Among those left that the voters can deal with, Larson, Burg, and Moore-Sykes are trying to tell us that they are the best qualified to right the course of the project and protect the taxpayer's forced 'investment'. They are asking the voters to trust them to step back and assess and deal with the current problems without consideration of their legacy or saving face for past poor decisions. For voters to allow this would in some ways be even more foolish than some of the decisions of the elected officials that created the problems. The incumbents, though well intentioned and honorable people, have shown over a long period of time that they for whatever reason do not have the judgment and ability to get the job done.

The first step in getting out of a hole is to quit digging and the incumbents in the upcoming election apparently are not ready to stop. It will be interesting to see if the voters have the sense to take the shovels out of their hands and give them to new people who will use them to at least start filling the hole rather than digging it deeper.

I don't envy whoever wins this election as their predecessors have left them a huge mess to deal with. As a long time resident I am concerned about the future of my city and just hope that whoever gets elected has the gumption and drive to rescue the city from this unfortunate situation before even more damage occurs.

11/02/2007 12:28 PM  

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