At what point does the Blues Factory debacle become a civic embarrassment?
That point may already have been reached. If so, it occurred at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, when Port Washington aldermen returned to the council chamber after a two-hour closed session and voted not to hold the developer of the proposed lakefront entertainment complex accountable for the latest missed deadline.
With its decision to give the developer an indefinite amount of additional time to meet the terms of an agreement requiring proof of financing, the Common Council all but admitted that the three deadlines that have come and gone without consequences were for appearances only and not to be taken seriously.
Instead of a new deadline, the Blues Factory was given an oxymoron—an indefinite deadline.
The decision had the look of a desperate attempt to keep the development on life support in the face of strong opposition in the community and doubts about its financial underpinnings.
Those doubts were exacerbated by the announcement Tuesday by Christopher Long that he is severing ties with the Blues Factory. Long is the Madison-area business consultant and blues music aficionado who conceived the Blues Factory idea and was its principal developer and passionate advocate. In withdrawing from the project, he cited “gaps that must be bridged” to meet city requirements.
The developer’s failure to abide by June, August and September deadlines came in spite of a generous incentive to meet the city’s terms—a promise of a $1 million loan from taxpayers.
In May, the council agreed to provide the million-dollar subsidy through tax incremental financing and allow some of it to be used to buy publicly owned land adjacent to the marina for the Blues Factory provided the project had obtained $250,000 in private equity investment and a loan for $5.5 million.
The public was excluded from the Blues Factory discussion at last week’s Common Council meeting (as it has been from numerous other meetings on the subject), and officials did not reveal whether any progress had been made toward meeting the financial requirements.
The council’s current willingness to grant serial delays contrasts with the uncommon speed with which the mayor and aldermen pushed the Blues Factory initiative early on. Fast action was essential, they said then, because the developer needed to have the complex open by April 2017 to benefit from promoting the 100th anniversary of Paramount Records. That schedule proved to be as illusory as the missed deadlines.
By refusing to enforce its own deadlines, the council failed to take advantage of an opportunity to put a graceful end to the controversy it created with its insistence on selling the marina land for commercial development regardless of broad, enduring public opposition.
That opportunity was the offer by three marina district land owners, led by Ansay Development Corp., to buy the north slip parking lot earmarked for the Blues Factory for $250,000 in cash and turn it into public greenspace.
The offer addresses the conviction that drives opposition to the Blues Factory—that public lakefront land should not be used for buildings that block or impede visual and physical access to the water.
The city rushed headlong into the Blues Factory adventure without a comprehensive plan for marina district development. The proposal by Ansay and the other landowners attempts to fill that void with an outline that not only saves the north slip land for the public, but calls for keeping large buildings back from the water.
The plan in its present form may not be the ultimate answer, but it commands credibility by emphasizing a fundamental truth recognized by enlightened waterfront communities everywhere: When you’re gifted with proximity to a beautiful body of water, you don’t build to the water’s edge—especially on public land.
The landowners’ offer comes with opportunities for compromise, including the possibility of an alternative site for the Blues Factory. Unfortunately, when dealing with the north slip land, city officials have consistently chosen a fortress mentality over compromise.
Meanwhile, the image of elected representatives repeatedly going the extra mile for a developer as they gamble the public’s land and tax money on a risky bet suggests greater concern for the developer than for the more than 1,000 citizens who signed petitions against the land sale and others who expressed their opposition with lawn signs and letters to the editor and by patiently waiting at public meetings to voice their opposition.
This surely disappoints or angers some residents. Others might just be embarrassed for their city.