Saturday, January 20, 2007

Case In Point By Joe Koester, Councilman Ward 9

“In creating, the only hard thing is to begin: a grass blade’s no easier to make than an oak.”
-James Russell Lowell
Noah’s Ark Development

TIF is a legal tool intended to help blighted areas redevelop; this tool was seen as abuse when it was employed to bring development to farmland in St. Peters and other similar settings in other parts of our county. Saint Charles City has used TIF to help redevelop Mark Twain Mall. Who isn’t glad to see that site brought back to life after years of languishing as empty, undesirable storefronts? Furthermore, our own city project, the convention center has a TIF that is proportionately much higher than that sought by the developer at Noah’s Ark. No one would argue that the Noah’s Ark site isn’t blighted. The type of situation found there is not only technically compliant with the law, it is also the intended usage of TIF; namely, the redevelopment of blighted areas that would not develop on their own otherwise.

I have heard arguments against this project mainly due to philosophical differences with TIF being used at all. If you are opposed to TIF in any form, your argument should be taken up with lawmakers in Jefferson City. We in St. Charles want retail in our own town – retail that is currently moving west to green fields – many of which are using TIF to entice developers. I would agree with a statewide ban or striking down this use of public dollars even on a nationwide level. In absence of such a fundamental change in the law, it is foolish for St. Charles to believe it can compete with the green fields to the west of here without tax incentives. It is doubly foolish if you consider that even those open fields are implementing Tax Increment Financing.

Other arguments I have heard include that a better project may come along that won’t seek TIF at all. First off, this scenario is unlikely. Even a big box retailer would seek TIF and in the end, we would have a big box retailer. One store, surrounded by a sea of parking, Show-Me Aquatics, and a QT gas station would be the entirety of this development that rests at our “front door.”

Problems that are common with such big box development include finding new tenants once this singular business decides to leave. Usually, no other business is willing to move into the 120,000 or so square foot building that they leave behind (see K-mart on South Service Road). This ex-business exoskeleton can sit for years depressing property value of the community at-large. The reason for the business to leave is also a problem for towns from coast to coast – the big box retailer having enjoyed tax incentives to come to town start looking for another sweet deal that allows them another decade of incentives somewhere just down the road. Or, if they do stay, they coerce the town to cough up another tax break in lieu of their departure perpetuating the cycle that is, in fact, a part of devised corporate tactics for major retailers.

What the planned development for the Noah’s Ark site brings instead of this is, a mixed use development that has been fractionalized to a high degree and therefore, no one store has the gravity to twist the city’s arm to give it future tax deals, nor does any one store’s closing leave behind a behemoth space lacking any architectural appeal whatever. The absence of a tenant here will be better absorbed and, if need be, space usage can far more easily be redeveloped into appropriate use at a future date based upon changes that occur.

Furthermore, waiting for a “better” development when a beautiful development is on the table is mad. The developer has employed a world-renowned city planner to design this site. The developer comes to the table with a good working relationship with our town; he is part of our town and is currently committed to a long-term project within our town. This fact should not be taken lightly. A positive working history is important and it is refreshing to see someone in our community who believes that such a development will work and that we do not have to settle for another bank flanked by a gas station and fast food joint.

As a council member, we first and foremost represent the City’s interests. Currently, our city receives no taxes from Noah’s Ark. This development brings this portion of land into our corporate limits and our town goes from its current situation of essentially providing city services without any tax revenue to placing this land into our limits where codes can be enforced so that we are not left with a blighted development surrounded by our city but where we have no say. Upon entry into the City, our town immediately benefits from property taxes as well as sales taxes. It should be noted that a future development is not even guaranteed to come into our City. Indeed, we have already witnessed special interest legislation that has prevented beautiful developments from coming into our corporate limits.

This leads me into the importance of what is sometimes called, “viewshed.” Viewshed is the parts of a city that are in highly exposed areas and therefore give the entire city a feel. A good viewshed cannot change an otherwise bad city, however, good viewshed can enhance an area that is already good but needs to clean up its appearance. This is exactly what we have in St. Charles. We who live here know of the beauty of Main Street. We know how stately our homes are in Mid-Town. We appreciate good schools, libraries, hospitals and parks in our town. Ask yourself, “If I didn’t know St. Charles City and drove here for the first time what would my impression be? Things have improved at the Fifth Street entrance since the development of the corner of Boone’s Lick and Fifth and since the reinvestment in Mark Twain Mall. Two things, however, distract from this intersection – the south side of the highway where a derelict hotel rests and a gargantuan casino on the north side. I would like to come back to this in a moment. Whenever strangers exit onto First Capitol Drive headed into the heart of our town, I can only believe that they must see our town as a dumpy place with check cashing shops and empty stores and lots. The Zumbehl and Cave Springs exits are somewhat better but even these exits appear tired and in need of new investment. Also, the first impression is set at the river, not by the time someone makes it to Zumbehl Road. What the development at Noah’s Ark offers our City is a new welcoming face for passers-by and balance to the casino site. The height and higher use indicates that there is more to this town than just a casino, because frankly, whatever your opinion of the casino is, a casino’s presence outside of Vegas or Atlantic City seems to indicate a stagnant or struggling town. Simply look at casino locations across this county as an indicator.

A redeveloped, high-use Noah’s Ark site also eliminates one of the most blatantly blighted sites in St. Charles. This provides confidence for other developers to consider our City for other such redevelopments.

This redeveloped site also creates interesting space that is both an attraction to visitors as well as an enticement for those who want to live in a place that has all the comforts of a small city. This development brings in new retail that we so badly need. This point is a natural segue to another point to be made in favor of this development which is the type of retail we can attract. Whereas, a Wal-mart or a Kohl’s would certainly mean the closing of the Zumbehl or Rock Road store respectively, smaller shops will offer the space needed for specialty retailers who currently have no venue in our City. Instead of displacing dollars, this development will offer new investment that isn’t predatory on our neighboring communities.

Next, this development lies in the St. Charles City School District and our schools immediately benefit from its redevelopment because our town is more attractive to young families and because of an immediate infusion of tax dollars from the development as well as from property taxes which are not included in the TIF. An agreement was made between City Schools and the developer that they will receive around $850,000 as a one-time payment. At its current use, it would take the school district about 21 years to bring in this much revenue. To argue a theoretical development that will not require TIF, again, is unrealistic. For those who argue that this site will naturally redevelop will mean that we are again looking at a hodgepodge use that will end up pieced together along side of Show-Me Aquatics and QT.

One dumfounding statement said that the development is too “upscale” and that the City should consider providing low-income housing at the site. From the entire county, our City has by far the highest concentration of low-income housing. Instead of this, I would propose placing a large low-income housing development to the west. You would immediately hear a collective scream rise into the heavens if this were proposed. If our neighbors don’t want this kind of development, then don’t ask my town to “downscale” to provide business owners low-income housing along my town’s interstate frontage.