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Council arrived late for this ball

We’ll never be the belle of the ball if everyone knows we’re easy.

That’s how I ended my first column about CentrePointe, soon after Dudley Webb unveiled plans for his $250 million luxury hotel, condo and retail complex.

I was likening Lexington to a debutante who fancies herself as someone special, yet rushes into the arms of any real estate developer with a hot proposition.

So here we are, nearly four months later. Where does the belle find herself?

She’s considering a shotgun marriage to the CentrePointe developer. Why? Because it could be an easy way to get some downtown goodies. Or maybe not.

When Webb announced CentrePointe in early March after two years of behind-the-scenes work, he said the financial plan included as much as $70 million in tax increment financing to pay for related “public” improvements. Those were described as such things as a parking garage under Phoenix Park and public art.

Kentucky’s tax increment financing program — known as TIF — is a great tool that allows a city and the developer of a “signature” project to work together to rehabilitate a blighted urban area. With TIF, some of the future taxes generated by the private project are used to pay for “public” improvements near the development.

Now, Webb says he doesn’t want any more public meddling in CentrePointe and he has enough private financing to build without TIF. But no TIF, no public improvements.

Webb’s attorney, Darby Turner, said the developer would only apply for TIF financing if the Urban County Council asks him to. The council will vote Thursday on whether to do that.

Council members were told for the first time Tuesday that representatives of Webb and Mayor Jim Newberry have discussed trying to use TIF money for a long list of downtown projects, including a much-needed renovation of the old courthouse. Also, Turner said that instead of $70 million, only $35 or $40 million might really be available for public improvements.

So how would this all work? How much money could really be available to the city and what could it buy? Nobody seems to know.

In fact, Tuesday’s meeting was the first time council members had really ever discussed CentrePointe TIF. Several council members had some very basic questions about TIF, and the only knowledgeable person there to advise them was Webb’s consultant, John Farris.

Council members are being asked to make a quick decision with little information. Some of them are angry about it, and who can blame them?

“What this motion asks us to do is ... ask if we could tag along with the CentrePointe project and maybe get some public amenities out of a deal that’s already done,” Councilman Tom Blues said. “What we see here is a failure of communication, of cooperation, of public involvement, of openness, and I’m disturbed that it has come to this, because it really indicates a significant civic failure.”

Councilman Don Blevins said more study is needed to see how CentrePointe fits with potential city redevelopment projects a couple of blocks down Main Street. Blevins noted that decisions the council is about to make could shape Lexington for a century or more and shouldn’t be rushed.

And he added: “It feels a little strange hitching our TIF wagon to a project some of us don’t like. My fear is that a large four-star hotel with huge condominums on top of it is going to fail. I hope I’m wrong. I hope they’re wildly successful and the downtown is vibrant and we sell all those condos and the hotel is full from here to eternity. But what if I’m right? What we’d have is essentially a vertical Lexington Mall right in the heart of downtown.”

Vice Mayor Jim Gray also questioned CentrePointe’s economic viability. And he wondered whether a CentrePointe TIF would even be legal because developers say it’s not essential to build their project.

Gray has been among the most outspoken critics of CentrePointe because of Webb’s refusal to allow public input on the project’s design — and Webb’s insistence on demolishing the block’s historic buildings rather than trying to incorporate some elements of them into the new building.

“I’ve learned over time that this business of building and developing is a whole lot more about process than about project,” said Gray, who is president of a large construction company.

On Tuesday, Gray read to his fellow council members from a “best practices” guide to Kentucky TIF projects. It recommended thorough study, public participation and community buy-in — none of which has happened with CentrePointe.

It might be too late for anyone but Dudley Webb to influence what happens on the CentrePointe block.

But the future of downtown shouldn’t rise or fall on one project, no matter now big it is. Council members should slow down, think things through and look at all of the options.

Two other TIF projects have been proposed for Lexington — an arena to replace Rupp and a large downtown entertainment district along Manchester Street. Given the redevelopment opportunities downtown, there could be the potential for several more big projects.

The best course of action might be to tell Webb to go ahead and build CentrePointe on his own.

City officials could then do what they should have done long ago: Engage the public in a discussion about what downtown Lexington needs and what it might get from a TIF partnership. Then the city could seek out a developer who is interested in a true partnership.

Blevins said it all: The decisions we are about to make will shape Lexington for a century or more and shouldn’t be rushed.An intentional courtship would make a lot more sense than a shotgun marriage.

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