In the days leading up to the September 3, 2014 meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen on the discussion of Plamondon as the chosen developer of the downtown hotel, the city’s director of ‘economic development’ Richard Griffin expressed concern that critics would show up. He emailed the heads of the local Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Partnership, the Tourism Council and a couple of others to recruit friendly speakers who were each given “key” talking points. We have now obtained a copy of them.
Four pages long the “Key Points” rehearse many of the familiar propaganda points about the Downtown Hotel & Conference Center (DH&CC) project, mostly the familiar speculative stuff about all the new business it will supposedly bring, the new jobs created, and new development nearby evoked by those ‘jump-starter’ and ‘catalyst’ metaphors.
“No City $s”
“Key Points” starts off with ‘Mythbusting’ of those nasty critics of the City’s hotel, Myth 1 being “Taxpayers will get stuck with the bill.” In response the prepped speakers were given Griffin Fact 1: “No City taxpayer dollars will be used on this project.” Note the future tense ‘will’ in the middle of that sentence. Now about the future behavior of any government there is no ‘fact.’ You can only guess what a future city government may do.
Note that the hotel project was sponsored by the City, the site was selected by the City, the hotel size and features were specified by the City, the conference center portion of the hotel project has been repeatedly called ‘public infrastructure,’ the developer was chosen by the City, and the hotel sits on City land. With that rich history as a City project it would be ludicrous for any City government to shrug hotel problems off as “not our responsibility.” The hotel project is be set up to be bled for ongoing taxpayer ‘support’ especially for the conference center. No one can say with any credibility that “no City taxpayer dollars will be used on this project.” Griffin has no basis for making such a prediction.
Even the financing plans the City has announced for the hotel run counter to Griffin Fact 1. The DH&CC Project, Preliminary Revised Budget — Sources & Uses Matrix of 2.4.16 has the City putting up $3,516,949 split between tax increment financing (TIF,) CIP (capital improvement program) matching funds, and the City’s Parking Fund. That $3.52m is all City money, and hence City taxpayer dollars. A portion of it is borrowed funds. But borrowed funds with City obligation are just as much City taxpayer money as tax-derived funds. Indeed they are a greater obligation than direct tax funds since they have to be repaid by the City with interest by future City taxpayers.
Also Griffin Fact 1 about what might be spent by way of City taxpayer dollars in the future is a distraction from real facts about taxpayer dollars the City has spent already. The City general ledger ‘conference center’ account (120005) puts this at $582,402 FY2013 through FY2016 and that doesn’t include the costs of the City Department of Economic Development. It was $711,081 in FY2015 of which perhaps a quarter should be allocated to the hotel project, or over three years about $480,000. So a bit more than a million dollars of City taxpayer money has already been spent on the DH&CC project. The pace of spending increases. The City is committed to paying a third of the ‘soft costs’ (architects, engineers, lawyers, consultants, lobbyists etc) in developing the project. It is trying to milk the state to the max to save City taxpayers but state grants and loans gotten for the hotel are to some extent grants and loans NOT gotten for other Frederick projects.
The ‘Facts’ don’t get any better.
‘Myth 2’ is that the ‘City is building and operating a hotel’ and the Griffin Fact 2 is that ‘Hotel and conference center will be privately owned and operated.’ This is the classic strawman. No one claims otherwise. The criticism is that the City set out to control which developer would get to build the only downtown hotel, that the city discouraged other self-financed projects, that the City took it on itself to choose the site, that the City specified the hotel in great detail, that the City proposes to buy the land for the developer, and has allowed the required upfront public funding to triple from the $10m to $12m before the RFP to $31 million now. And that the conference center, the parking garage and other pieces built with public money are to be gifted to the developer.
“Multiple studies show…”
‘Myth 3’ that ‘the size of the hotel is too large’ is countered with the supposed ‘Fact’ that “Multiple demand studies and input from the business community support facility of this size.” The size of the conference center that has been controversial. Contrary to that Griffin Fact not one of the four major studies has supported the 20,000 square ft plus size specified by the City. The first two studies (Pinnacle 1, 2010 and Crossroads 1, 2012) say nothing about the size of the conference center while Pinnacle 2, 2013 and PALS/UMD, 2015 stress the difficulty of getting conference business. The latter doesn’t directly discuss the appropriate size. Pinnacle 2, 2013 explicitly argues for a smaller conference center than the City planned, its last words being: “…we believe 12,000 square feet is more reasonable and would satisfy meeting demand.” (p13) That’s about half what’s proposed. So the only study to really address the size, does not as Griffin repeatedly claims support, over 20,000sf. It argues for 12,000sf.
It is true that “the business community” wants a large conference center, but it’s easy for them to want a facility when they are not asked to invest a single dollar.
“Will meet code”
Myth 4 concerns parking and traffic impacts and gets as a Fact the bland statement that the project would meet code requirements. That avoids discussion of the fact that the project requires radical changes to the streets around including two-saying of what is now a one-way street. The Plamondon official proposal in response to RFP14J said this radical rejig of local streets was validated by a traffic impact study the developer had completed. However the study has not been released publicly. Not even the City traffic engineer was able to get it.
“Sensitive to historic preservation”
Myth 5 is “not sensitive to historic preservation.” Griffin Fact in response is that it will renovate the Trolley Building and demolish what is called the “dilapidated/fire-damaged Tannery.” The enclosing solid brick walls and spectacular smokestack of the Tannery are in excellent condition. Only the interior is dilapidated and fire damage in 1909 has long since been repaired. No mention is made of the project’s plan to demolish the southern half of the trolley building. So much for ‘sensitivity to historic preservation’ on a site deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic places as far back as 1983.
Most of the rest is familiar to people who have seen the promotional presentations for the project over the years.
Griffin’s ‘Key Points’ are a bunch of misrepresentations and falsehoods. The wrongdoing in propagating them is compounded by his surreptitious recruitment of others to give voice to them at the Mayor & Board meeting.
pdf of the September 2014 Griffin Key Points: