Columns » Max Brantley

NLR's strong mayor

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North Little Rock's Pat Hays is a strong mayor. Pushy and impetuous, too.

Special parking for VIPs by the ballpark? He'll take it, never mind the law. Grabbing school taxes for private property development? He'll take it, never mind the law. Big increases in electric rates? He'll lead the city into a deal to buy power from a coal-burning power plant that — surprise! — produces no significant savings.

But Hays makes things happen. He's got an arena, a ballpark and the reviving Argenta neighborhood to show for it.

He's also had the important help of broad-minded investors with deep pockets who've sunk a lot of their own money into Argenta. New residences, restaurants and businesses salute a clanging trolley in what was once mostly wasteland.

Hays is rightfully grateful to the private developers. You can understand why he's willing to entertain a swap of four city-owned properties for their currently vacant Rye Furniture building. Somewhere down the line, the investors might buy some of the Rye property back to build a hotel. The city would keep some of the property to build a parking deck for the hotel.

Hays tried to shove this plan – absent innumerable explanatory details – through the City Council last week, but pulled back after some aldermen objected. Now it's scheduled for a Sept. 13 vote.

Leading the opposition is Wyndham hotel owner Frank Fletcher, who says he has $12 million sunk in his property (a neighbor to the Rye site) without a dime provided by the city to meet parking or other needs. He's also running a hotel currently operating at 50 to 60 percent of occupancy. He fails to see the need for a new hotel subsidized by taxpayers.

Fletcher is self-interested. But his questions deserve answers. Are the appraisals straight? What will the parking deck cost taxpayers and can it operate profitably? Where will the city come up with the $3 to $4.5 million for a 200- to 300-car deck, particularly if the city loses the lawsuit over the gerrymandered tax increment finance district Hays jammed through a compliant City Council on New Year's Eve 2008 to poach school tax money for a deck. Even if Hays does salvage the TIF district (doubtful), it can't produce the money necessary to pay for a parking deck because the apartment project Hays hoped to use as the property tax cash cow was assessed way under its expected value.

Also: What will it cost to tear down the Rye building? Has there been an environmental assessment? What happens if the city gets hung with the Rye building and no hotel is built? How can the city claim the vacant Rye property has risen in value when property values generally have tanked? How will the city compensate for city employee parking spaces and parking revenue lost on the land swap? If a 130-room hotel is built, how does the city compensate for insufficient spaces in the deck (using its own planning guidelines for parking adequacy). What would a new hotel pay for space in the city's deck?

The city's interest in further spurring a reviving downtown may persuade aldermen to approve this deal. But it deserves careful examination and answers to all questions. That hasn't always been Mayor Hays' style.

Frank Fletcher, unlike some of the mayor's other marks, can afford lawyers. He's battling the TIF district and he says he's prepared to back a referendum campaign should Hays authorize a public commitment to a parking deck for a competitor. Call him strong, too.

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