Investors, doctors, politicians, and other wealthy and well-connected citizens have been flooding the City Council’s mailboxes with letters of support for Gary Matthews and the downtown hotel project. Many of them are form letters, or at least incorporate boilerplate language such as this:
It is my [or “our”] understanding that EM Properties has worked closely and judiciously with city staff, Civic Center authorities, labor unions, construction companies, lenders, sellers and the well respected hotel group, Marriott, in order to piece together all of the parts of this intricate transaction. All aspects of the project have been vetted, reworked and vetted again to insure its success. It is crucial to the revitalization of our downtown and the future of our city and region that the project moves forward. Job creation and maintenance are vital.
The completion of this project will better position many companies in the area to better market our community and enrich our local economy in order to compete with surrounding areas.
In March of this year, ground was broken for a new Courtyard by Marriott in Newark, New Jersey. It will include 150 rooms and 14,000 square feet of retail space, and is “expected to generate approximately 175 construction jobs, and a total of between 50 and 75 permanent jobs through the hotel and retail operations.” How much money do you think the City of Newark contributed to this boon to their local economy? Answer: a $500,000 loan “to assist the Courtyard by Marriott with gaining site control.”
Meanwhile in Peoria, to get our own new 119-room Courtyard by Marriott, plus a renovation of the Pere Marquette with a gerbil tube to the Civic Center, it will take a gift of $37 million from the taxpayers. Does something seem a little off to you? Perhaps the reason is that our workers are not as efficient. According to a May 23, 2010 Journal Star article, “professor Bob Scott at Bradley University expects 840 construction jobs to be created when EM Properties and Marriott International team up on the $102 million Downtown project.” That’s nearly five times as many construction jobs as are necessary to build a hotel in Newark.
I think the letter writers and supporters of the Wonderful Development are missing the point. They’re all arguing the merits of an upscale downtown hotel in close proximity or connected to the Civic Center. That’s all well and good. But at what price? Should the City take on a third of the risk for this $102 million private development? Should a City taking on said risk continue to trust a developer that has demonstrated a consistent inability to meet deadlines and projections? Would doing so really be in the taxpayers’ best interests? If the developer is unable to meet short-term projections (like when he can start construction), how can we trust him to meet long-term projections (like the future profitability of the venture)?
This project has been approved for two and a half years. It was approved twice. It has been over nine months since the latest deadline was missed. Each time the developer has come to the table, he’s assured the council that he was ready to start. In May 2010, he said he was ready to start “immediately.” Everything was in place. All that was missing was the Council’s approval.
Sixteen months later, nothing has started, and the City Manager cancels the agreement. So now what do we hear? Here’s another sample from a pro-hotel letter to the Council: “All pieces are in place, as outlined in brief above, we just need the nod from the council, and the city to sell the bonds. We can close in 60 days.” Where have we heard that before?
The Wonderful Development must die.