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Guest column: Rent me not

in Opinion

By Keene Winters

Sometimes we should thank God for unanswered prayers. Such was the case when CBL & Associates skipped town before laying hands on any part of the $4.1 million the city planned to give them to save the mall.

Fate, it seems, may again intervene to help us help our stupid selves. Quantum Ventures could fail to raise the private capital necessary to construct two buildings on Wausau’s riverfront, and the deal would  be off.

Keene Winters served two terms on the Wausau City Council from April 2012 to April 2016. (Photo credit: Life Touch)

To be ready for that, the first thing we should do is keep a tight grip on the public purse and not get sucked into advancing Quantum Ventures public funds because the developer is short on cash. In addition, the Finance Committee or the Economic Development Committee should receive monthly reports on how much money the city has disbursed for the project and how much private money the developer has raised and spent. Given the debacle in Green Bay, to do otherwise would be the grossest kind of fiscal negligence.

Moreover, if these numbers are not made readily available through reports to the council, then members of the media should file open records requests for them. A transparent tracking of these dollars is the only way to ensure that the city does not prolong a floundering deal with premature infusions of public cash.

The sooner the deal fails the better. We will waste less money and time, and we will have the opportunity to go back to the beginning and do this right.

Starting fresh means writing a new request for proposals (RFP) to solicit developers with one important change: Put the land up for sale.

In 2011, I wrote an opinion editorial that published in the Wausau Daily Herald (see below) about the city’s decision to purchase the 16 acres of riverfront land for $2.6 million and take it off the tax rolls with no pending plans to recover those costs. Selling the land would be an excellent way to recoup those costs and lost revenues.

It should have been obvious to everyone that the original RFP failed when it only turned up two bidders. A successful RFP should have brought forth many more willing developers. The poor response signals that there is something odd in the RFP’s terms, and the odd thing we do in Wausau is lease the land instead of selling it.

The rationale often given for leasing is that the city can “better control” what happens on the land, but it is hard to understand why this detour from normalcy is necessary. As a Wisconsin municipality, the City of Wausau is already clothed in magnificent powers to control development. Those powers are zoning and permitting.

Certainly, some developers will read “better control” as “micro-manage,” and it is hard to argue that they would wrong. It was not that long ago that the owners of Wausau on the Water, who lease the land beneath their building from the city, were hauled in front of the common council to explain their failure to affix barn-quilt-like art objects to the outside of their restaurant.

Think of the proposition on it is face. Would you build a house on land you did not own? Who would give you a mortgage? Who would pay you full price for the house?

Similarly, we are asking potential developers to invest millions of their own dollars and take all the business risks while depriving them of the normal right to own the ground they build on. It creates an odd circumstance that impairs the valuation of the development, and that is not good for the city or the developer. Why would a reputable developer whose work is in demand readily accept these conditions? If we are serious about attracting private capital to invest in buildings on the riverfront that pay lots of property taxes then we need to be prepared to sell the land.

Once again, the architects of this policy owe the public an explanation. Since this kind of leasing is not usual or customary, Finance Chairperson Lisa Rasmussen and Economic Development Chairperson Tom Neal should provide an evidence-based argument—and not just a rhetorical one—on how this policy creates tangible economic benefits for the taxpayers.

In the end, I believe that the failure of the Quantum Ventures deal would be a blessing. The city could issue a new RFP offering the land for sale to properly-vetted developers who have the vision, the skill-set and the financial resources to give this community the buildings, the jobs and the tax base worthy of an urban waterfront in a major city.

Editors Note: In the last seven weeks, former Alderman Keene Winters has raised a number of key policy issue related to Wausau city government, ranging from mounting city debt to growing city legal costs to guaranteeing large profits for developers. With a month left until city council elections, this publication welcomes all candidates for the spring election to voice their opinions on issues in this public forum. Email letters of any length to editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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