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Guest Column: On the river to Abilene

in Opinion

By Doug Diny

The good news on the RiverLife lien situation is that we can finally snap out of denial, wishful thinking, and group think about the perfect sales pitch. Let’s be careful to learn the right lessons and not scapegoat one or two people and chicken out of real corrective actions. I’m sure Mike Frantz really believed he could pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he’s now potentially financially ruined in part by our own willingness to go along with the pipe dream.  We’ve been on the “Road to Abilene” from the start of the RiverLife project.  Let’s accept our new challenge openly and wallow in the past only long enough to log our lessons.

Doug Diny

Local social media is exploding with “experts” piling on to the obvious.  Let’s tame the social media firing squads and start floating solutions, not fix blame on a past we can’t change. Painting Mike Frantz, Chris Schock, and city council with the same broad-brush hampers those left to fix the mess.  We just put a new council in place, we, as a community, voted on April 5th knowing then virtually everything we now acknowledge today.  Collectively, we, not they, decided our course of action and we, not they, ignored the warning signals along the way.

For simplicity, Wiki says: “In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections.”

Recognize this is a group dynamic.  It’s a kind of group think that organizations fall prey to for various reasons.  Here I think, it’s the mix of personalities and leadership styles on staff and city council that lulled us into the illusion that asking pointed questions or running one’s own calculations on staff figures is contrary to getting along with one another.

The important decision makers are today’s council members, not us Monday morning quarterbacks.  They can right the ship. They need to understand the business case, follow their gut on the personality conflicts, moderate social media, ignore the glossy sales pitches, and accept that this may likely get worse before it gets better.  Resist the temptation to tamp down any questions or suggestions.  In times of crisis, if we aren’t over-communicating, we’re under-communicating.

Proceed with caution on another request for proposal (RFP) to find a new developer. Change orders could drive costs exponentially and further harm the tax payers.   The best way out is usually to salvage the team already in place.  Settling the liens with Samuels (as suggested in yesterday’s WPR) with a land payment may have merits; they’ve already mobilized and gotten their hands dirty in this soil, they may be our best bet.    But moving forward with the current team structure will only work if ALL the cards are on the table.

The developer agreement was amended several times to transition developer heads. A simple amendment would put the project back on track with Samuels in the lead and the collections piece could play out with Frantz and Barker, away from the project.  We can’t bank on an outside expert riding in to save the day.  Samuels or a partner they choose is a logical choice.

A new deal should be easily defined, publicly open, and structured to compensate them fairly without losing all city leverage.  A third-party consultant could flesh out those numbers.  Ehlers originally questioned the proposed project value, the Swiderski proposal also presented a far lower cost that could be compared.  Don’t rule them out as a consulting partner.  (Frantz/Barker/Quantum turned over the plans, there’s no confidentiality issue).

The public deserves to see the numbers for a reasonable future tax assessment.  The Frantz $27 million projected assessment is questionable. A more realistic value may change our options within the TID and what a fair and reasonable tax payer would see as value.

This needs to play out as publicly as possible.  Don’t be surprised if the haircut we take upfront has a much longer payback than originally projected.  The City must prepare to cut our losses now and prove openly that we won’t dig the hole deeper.  Our bruised egos need to be buckled in the backs seat for this ride. The city council has the “conn” and the courage to help steer us off the River to Abilene.

Editor’s note: The views of our readers and guest columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot and Review. To submit a letter, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com or mail to P.O. Box 532, Wausau, Wis., 54402-0532.

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