Who’s against the Edgewater project?

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Most people are predisposed to support the Hammes Company’s efforts to renovate the Edgewater Hotel. After all, the proposed renovation ($107 million) is worth more than 20 times the current value of the Edgewater property ($5 million). It’s tough to justify turning down that kind of scratch during a recession.

But there are always reasons. Enter Capitol Neighborhoods Inc, a neighborhood association which claims to represent the residents of several key districts in Madison – First Settlement, Mifflin West, Bassett, James Madison Park and Mansion Hill. Thousands of students live in those areas, but most of them aren’t aware of the association, and those who are generally disapprove of its existence. CNI, after all, was the group that championed the Alcohol License Density Plan, which restricted the number of bars in the downtown area. It’s generally derided as a group of stuffy, well-to-do home owners who just want a view of the lake and those damn kids to turn that Snoopy Doggy or whatever his name is off. Predictably, CNI has raised concerns about the renovation’s obstruction of the lake view.

Then there are critics who care less about the lake view and more about people – like the Capital Times editorial board, which today urged the city to approve the project only if Hammes agrees to comply with certain labor standards, as well as if it pledges to keep the terrace open to the public at all times – even during private events.

To counter some of these criticisms, the Edgewater team has predictably engaged in a pretty aggressive public relations campaign, as documented in Jay Rath’s post last week on the company’s political activity on behalf of the project. He got hold of an email that Sarah Carpenter, director of community relations, sent to an undisclosed number of people, urging them to post messages on blogs (including this one) and newspaper websites in support of the renovation.

I sat down today with two members of the Edgewater development team, including Carpenter and Amy Supple, the director of development. They walked me through the finer points of the project, including their vision for the terrace, which they see as a public area, much like a park, which would be open to anyone for picnics and whatnot. Most importantly, they sought to dispel rumors that the renovation would be exclusive or that the company has tried to bully its way through the approval process.

They emphasized that although originally the project may have been forced to obstruct the “right of way,” which is essentially the view of Mendota Lake on Wisconsin Ave, they have since purchased more property that will allow them to be in compliance with a 1970’s ordinance that established that lake view as protected.

Furthermore, Supple sought to convey the message that Hammes had been fully co-operating with the system of checks set up by local government for projects like these. She claims the company has gone through the CNI process and touts the number of public meetings they’re organizing, the next of which is on Aug. 25 at Bethel Lutheran Church. However, according to them CNI was stacked against the company from the beginning, since the steering committee charged with reviewing the project is compose purely of people who opposed it. When probed about the email cited by Rath, both became visibly agitated and Carpenter tersely informed me that she didn’t know how he had gotten hold of a personal email. “It was just an email sent to a few personal friends, including our president here,” she explained. I’ll let you judge for yourself – does this sound like something you’d write to your homies:

“We will assist you by drafting and distributing key message statements so you can tailor your comments for specific audiences”

That statement put me in an awkward situation. I believed the statement to be misleading, however, ultimately, I didn’t really care. Her job is to get the community to support the project. She’s a campaign manager. She wouldn’t be doing her job if she did not try to influence dialogue online.

Moreover, the two contested the idea that the Mansion Hill Coalition, which was recently formed in support of the project, was a puppet group for the company. According to them, CNI is an inherently exclusive organization, which denies voice to the landlords and property owners who may not live in the neighborhood but have a bigger stake in its future than the thousands of residents who come and go every year. Of course, if we extended this logic to the next level, the CEO of Toyota would get to vote in U.S. elections by virtue of the incredible stake he has in our economy. (Of course, the CEO of Toyota can and certainly does hire lobbyists who have much louder voices than the average American)

They seemed incredulous as to why the company would be criticized for “engaging the public.”

Here’s what they either don’t understand, or are pretending not to understand:

The CEOs of both Hammes Co and its subsidiary, Hammes Co. Sports, Jon Hammes and Robert Dunn are guys who the average Madisonian would like to see step in a pile of dog shit. Both are huge Republican contributors, one of whom seemed to reap the benefits from his service to the GOP by being appointed head of the Wisconsin Investment Board by former Gov. Tommy Thompson. He apparently messed that one up bad, at taxpayer expense. He was also under scrutiny in 2000 for improperly rating the asset values of a company that was one of his largest tenants.

Most people support the plan, and it will probably be approved. However, the suspicion won’t subside just because the Hammes people promise that the renovation will comply with all the community expectations. The “controversy” simply comes down to a question of trust. At the top of every company, is a rich guy who’s looking to make a profit. He’ll say whatever he needs to say and he’ll pay people who will say whatever they need to say. Now that the company is applying for Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), the question of trust becomes even more important. Do we trust this man with our tax dollars? Is his word worth a damn – how will we make sure he doesn’t screw us over in the process? Does his success necessarily coincide with ours?

That is why there will be at least some opposition to the project. More on the issue later.

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5 Responses to “Who’s against the Edgewater project?”

  1. Ordinary Jill Says:

    Longtime Madisonians may also remember how we were screwed over by the Monona Terrace project. We were told it wouldn’t obstruct views of the Capitol — that was a lie from the start. We were told that the rooftop garden would be open to the public — that was partially a lie. We were told that it only needed a taxpayer subsidy to build it, not to operate it — that was also a lie. We were told (partly to gain the support of the owners of The Madison Concourse Hotel and Inn on the Park) that it would not require an attached hotel — that eventually turned out to be a lie as well.

    It is a myth that building more convenient hotel rooms will magically bring major conventions to Madison. Major conventions are held in cities with major airports. Using TIF funds to finance more hotel construction and expansion downtown is just corporate welfare for developers. It will result in more empty rooms and a bigger taxpayer burden to run Monona Terrace, since MT will lose meeting business (and revenue) to the new hotels. Hotels can offer free meeting space to groups that fill overnight rooms. Monona Terrace can’t compete with that.

  2. Emily Says:

    I have several doubts and issues with the project overall, but my most serious concern is that the developer is asking for TIF money. TIF was originally set up to help fund beneficial projects in lower income neighborhoods, with the idea being that if you incentivized developers to build in those areas, it would help improve the area overall by bringing in jobs, activities, facilities, and improve aesthetics.

    Why we’re now offering it left and right for perfectly financially viable projects in more well-to-do areas of town is beyond me. I understand what the thinking is – that something like the Edgewater might eventually earn the city back the TIF money initially invested. But how about that money be pure profit? Why does Hammes Co. need the TIF in the first place? They don’t, they just think they can get it, so why not apply?

    Frankly, I think Madison has become too keen–somewhat understandably, given the current economic situation–to just jump at whatever vaguely shiny projects are thrown our way. We really need to sit down and think this out, make sure it’s a viable plan, make sure the developer is held truly responsible for promises made, etc.

    Also, what’s so wrong with wanting decent access to/views of the lake? It doesn’t just benefit people who live in the area. I’m not sure what the appeal of having the shoreline be almost completely lined with tall buildings is.

  3. The Sconz Says:

    You raise a good point Emily – TIF was originally meant for under-developed areas. The rationale, I assume, is that if the project does indeed increase the property value, then the city will make the money back through increased property tax revenues. But there could be a scenario where we are “over-TIFing,” and increasing property values to the point where we push lower income residents out of the city.

    Another point in favor of TIF funding may be that it allows the city to tie strings to the project – such as public access to the terrace.

  4. Brunch Links « The Sconz Says:

    […] The Sconz Just another WordPress.com weblog « Who’s against the Edgewater project? […]

  5. flowerchild Says:

    I live in downtown Madison, am a member of Capitol Neighbors and am
    in strong support of the Edgewater project. It will bring vitality to the
    Langdon area for visitors and residents with a beautiful site. The value
    added to property tax and hotel tax is important. All also the construction
    and permanent jobs are something we should not overlook in this distressed economic time. I am sick to death of all the NIMBYs who think
    that all downtown residents and buildings should conform to their ideas
    of a good quality of life. One must adapt if one chooses to live in the
    urban center of a city with 220,000 citizens. Let the Edgewater project
    begin soon.

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