Tom Eblen: A novel approach to downtown development

Herald-Leader columnistApril 15, 2009 

Like many journalists, I've always dreamed of writing the great American novel.

I have an idea for one. I even have a title: All That Glitters.

Here's the plot: A real estate developer announces plans to build a massive tower in the center of town. He touts it as an economic boon. He calls it DazzlePointe, with the extra "e" on the end to add some class.

Some of this developer's previous projects have been successful; others haven't been. For various reasons, some people in town don't trust him. But most of the city's powers that be are, well, dazzled by his proposal.

Think of it as The Music Man without the music.

The developer has been secretly working on DazzlePointe for a couple of years. But when he unveils the renderings, they show a generic tower that looks as if it was designed in a couple of weeks.

The developer's business plan is suspect. It's straight out of the fast-buck days of a real estate bubble that's getting ready to pop: A luxury hotel, nearly 100 million-dollar condos, upscale shops and restaurants.

Where's the money for DazzlePointe coming from? It's all cash, the developer says, but it's coming from a foreign investor whose identity he can't disclose.

The developer says he needs government help, in the form of tax-increment financing, to make the project truly special. Unless, that is, people want to ask too many questions; then he can build it on his own, but it will be much less special.

The money is in place, the developer says. He's ready to go. Except for one thing: The block contains some very old buildings that his silent partner has let crumble for years while city officials looked the other way.

Many good architects say some of the old buildings are special. They say they could be incorporated into a beautiful contemporary structure that would be better for the city and still accomplish the developer's financial goals. But the developer scoffs. The old buildings must go! City officials snap to attention, and the bulldozers roll in.

With the DazzlePointe site now cleared and ready for construction, everyone waits. And waits. Months go by. Then, city officials are told that the mysterious investor died. Months ago. Without leaving a will. But don't worry, the developer says. Everything will be fine.

How will the novel end? I've thought about several possibilities.

The developer might find the money and build his tower, only to see it fail within a few years (perhaps after he has sold it and pocketed a handsome fee). The real estate bubble has burst, taking much of the economy with it. The tower's business plan makes less and less sense with each passing day.

Another ending could be that the developer doesn't really have the money to build DazzlePointe. But now, with the block cleared, he and his partner have more flexibility to build something else there. Except for the loss of the old buildings, things work out fine, because the new project makes more long-term sense than DazzlePointe ever did.

Of course, a third ending could be that DazzlePointe is built and is a long-term success, defying all of the skeptics — and all of the nation's economic trends. But it has been years since I read many fairy tales, so I doubt I could write a good fairy-tale ending.

The part of this plot where I'm stuck isn't the end; it's the middle. I'm to the point where the DazzlePointe site is a big hole, the mysterious investor is dead and nothing seems to be happening.

How do the powers that be react? Do they continue taking everything the developer says as gospel? Or do they finally begin asking tough questions and demanding answers?

Here are some of the questions they might ask: When did the mysterious investor die? When did the developer find out? How long did he know it before telling government officials? Was it before the block was cleared? Was it before application for tax-increment financing was made or approved? Are there legal issues here that authorities should investigate?

As I said, this is the part of the novel where I'm stuck. How the powers that be react at this point could have a big effect on how the end of this story is written.

On second thought, maybe I should just stick to journalism. I probably wouldn't make a good novelist. After all, this plot is so implausible, who would ever believe it?

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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