Editorial: There's a silver lining in Federated's rain cloud
Federated Properties told city officials last week it wouldn't pursue an extension to a special land-use permit at 145 W. Front St. in Traverse City, effectively penning the obituary for a project borne of backroom deals designed to enrich a few while leaving taxpayers in the dark and potentially holding the tab.
This always was a grand scheme packaged as a dream, a 100-foot tall, nearly block-long monolith featuring pricey condos with a view of the bay. Just the tonic Traverse City needed during wobbly economic times, the developers and local pols cooed.
But all the would-be prosperity came with a slight caveat. Taxpayers were expected to ante up to $16 million in bond guarantees to build a 500-space-plus public parking deck and related improvements -- in truth Federated's get-it-off-the-ground foundation, both literally and financially.
When first pitched, the Federated deal seemed to demand extraordinary, sheep-like conformity and generosity from taxpayers. Local public officials, with the exception of city Commissioner Deni Scrudato, asked virtually no probing questions of a developer with exactly zero similar projects under its belt. Most city honchos, in fact, acted more like Federated's cheerleaders and apologists than hawkeyed guardians of the public good.
The Federated project in early 2006 appeared inevitable, a slick, done-deal product waiting for city commissioners' rubber stamp.
Then along came state Sen. Jason Allen, who unwittingly, spectacularly changed everything.
When local developer Gerald Snowden in January 2006 decided to make a run at some of the parking deck loot the city dangled at Federated, Allen, a Traverse City Republican, quietly stepped in and short-circuited Snowden. Behind closed doors, far from the public's prying eyes.
And Allen did so at Federated's bidding. Its CEO, Louis P. Ferris Jr., had pumped $20,000 into Allen's campaign coffers, and an eyes-on-the-prize politician like Allen wasn't about to ruffle a golden goose's feathers.
But word of Allen's shenanigans leaked, the Record-Eagle broke the story in February 2006, and brick-by-brick, buck-by-buck the Federated dream turned nightmarish, leading to a crushing August 2006 election defeat for a parking deck bond and ultimately voters' November 2007 sacking of pro-deck city commission incumbents.
It's an astounding story, one in which city voters and taxpayers raised a collective voice against ham-handed politicians, cronyism and the attempted pillage of public dollars.
In doing so, newly empowered city residents acted akin to a controlled forest fire, ridding themselves of dead wood in order to engender new growth.
Federated's sister project at 124 W. Front St., meanwhile, clings to life, but likely only until someone else takes over payments. And as Federated itself may always symbolize bad government and questionable deals, its ultimate, ironic legacy may be that it spurred the public to stand tall and retake its local government.
I recently expressed my growing impatience with our local paper at scienceblogs. The above editorial pretty much sums up what is good and what is bad about our paper.
- They are skeptical of local officials
- They aren't afraid to ruffle feathers
- They stick with a story
- They don't cover central questions (such as: did these guys have financing lined up for this project or not? You won't find out from reading the newspaper--more on this below)
- They love a good story WAY more than they love the truth
- They love the opportunity to tear someone down and/or pat themselves on the back.
Bad 1 is, I suspect, an effect of Bad 2 and 3: they don't report on a lot of details BECAUSE it would rob them of the opportunity to tear down the established powers and praise their own all-seeing wisdom.
My bet is that this project, which wasn't all that big--It would have been bigger than several similar projects already built or underway but would only merit the word behemoth in the mind of an editor with no discernment and a well-thumbed thesaurus--probably did have financing.
Part of the real story of Federated is the fact that credit conditions have changed so much since they proposed this big project: they may well have had credit lined up for the project as initially envisioned, but it expired in the time elapsed since revisions were made necessary to the plan. Now, with billions soaked up by the sub-prime mortgage mess and subsequent retrenchment, creditors aren't so anxious to fund real-estate speculation as they once were.
But telling this part of the story makes Federated seem less villainous, so let's not, shall we?
And this: "When first pitched, the Federated deal seemed to demand extraordinary, sheep-like conformity and generosity from taxpayers," is frankly just stupid. The deal was a deal. The taxpayers would have had to support a bond issue, but the revenue generated by the development was supposed to cover that, and the city would have gotten the parking lot--there are many, many details to this deal, but it was a proposed business deal, like it or not. The suggestion by the paper that this was some sort of giveaway is plain bullshit. And I write this as someone who absolutely HATES the way this town does business. (see here and here)
But what I hate even more is the way the paper has gotten into the habit of slinging half-truths, innuendo and self-congratulation. (It doesn't take a genius to see the subtext of this article: congratulations to us for leading this town on the path of righteousness!)
But this newspaper is woefully understaffed, does a crappy job of covering the basic facts of stories (nearly every story they cover leaves crucial facts uncovered: how did that money-pit septage plant ever get built in the first place? We may never know . . .) and the persona of their editorial page is turning into a very unpleasant combination of self-righteous prig and surly drunk.
This is probably an effect of having more people in editorial board meetings than they have covering the basic news: this paper is long on opinion and short on facts. Long on theatricality and short of brain power.
Unfortunately, there is little to be done: the paper exists for one reason: to deliver profits to its Alabama-based parent company. Providing decent basic news coverage is simply not part of the business plan.
Self-important, mad-at-them, grandstand rants on the editorial page are less expensive than more reporters.
And, hey, the fewer facts, the better! Who needs reporters?