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City Council, June 15

Gaillard Center project gets unanimous approval
An energy efficiency program and an ordinance regulating “events”
Marc Knapp

We were looking to some action over the proposed $142 million Gaillard Center project. Certainly, there were many citizens who spoke at the public hearing. Most were in favor but some were concerned about the cost and the need for spending in other areas. But when it came for discussion on Council, there was little. Considering the magnitude of the project, and the proposed funding, we expected spirited debate. There was none and the project and the proposed funding were endorsed unanimously by Council with some minor amendments. At least that is how it seemed.

We spoke to a Council member later in the evening and expressed our surprise at the easy passage and the lack of debate. We were told that the latter did not reflect indifference by Council. There had been considerable discussion amongst Council members and the Mayor in recent weeks and concerns expressed about financing. Although the project may have been endorsed by Council, approval had only been given for financing of the architect fees. They would be paid from the $20 million of the “anonymous” donor. Before Council approved the costly construction, which would rely on other funds, the financing would have to be in place. The inference was that Council would not move ahead with the project if there was a chance that the City would be left to take up any financing short fall.

To recapitulate, the City is proposing to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium and to also construct offices at the site for its own use. The cost is estimated at $142 million. The Mayor said that half the cost, $71 million, would come from private donations, $20 million of which has already been received. The balance would come from General Obligation Bond ($23 million), extension of the King Street Gateway Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District ($30 million) and from other sources such as the Accommodation Tax, Hospitality Fee etc ($18 million). The Mayor noted last night that the County had signed off on approving the extension of the TIF district for its share. The County School Board had agreed to allow the Gaillard to become part of the TIF but agreement still had to be reached on funding.

Understandably, the Mayor spoke glowingly of the project – the need to renovate the Gaillard, to have a concert hall /auditorium commensurate with the City’s stature, to encourage the arts, to save on the City’s rent expense. He said that the Gaillard was losing about $300,000 a year and the City was paying $750,000 a year in rents to house staff. The new Gaillard would save the City over a $1 million a year. He also said the economic impact was estimated at $62 million a year. He also said that the fall in construction costs in recent years made the timing propitious. He expected construction to begin in August 2012, and completion in 2014

Measured by the comments of the speakers, the City’s business community strongly endorsed the project. All saw considerable economic benefit. Speakers represented King Street Merchants, the Hotel industry, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and neighborhood associations. And of course there were a number of speakers with their personal views

Vangie Rainsford, President of the Garden District which abuts the Gaillard spoke in favor. Warwick Jones, my associate and spokesman for the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, reported that its members had reacted favorably to the proposed design but there was a lot of concern about the financing. What happened if the $71 million could not be raised from private donors? Ansonborough also abuts the Gaillard.

I also spoke at the hearing and expressed concern about the financing and the likely economic return. I was also skeptical about the estimated cost. It would be much more in my estimation. I also questioned the high fee to be paid to the architects -$4.65 million to David M Schwarz Architects, and $12.3 million to Earl Swenson Associates. These amounts total about $17 million or 12% of the projected $142 million cost. Fees for architects designing commercial construction are usually about 7.5 %.

Some Council members were also concerned about a cost overrun and sought assurance from the Mayor and staff that the cost estimate was reasonable. The Mayor said that a comparison with what happened with the Aquarium, as made by a Council member, was unfair. The latter was a grass roots project and ran into environmental problems. The Gaillard was a renovation largely, and the cost could be better measured. He also noted that construction cost estimates by staff in recent years had been very accurate.

The minor amendments that Council approved was monthly reporting on the participation of Minority and Disadvantaged Businesses Enterprises in the project, and for Council Member Seekings, who is a lawyer who specializes in construction contracts, to peruse the documents and suggest changes if necessary.

City moves ahead with energy efficiency program
The Mayor has been a consistent champion of a program to increase energy usage efficiency in the City. He was able to take his plan a step further last night with the decision to accept grants totaling $750,000. One grant was $250,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation and the other from the Home Depot Foundation for $500,000. The latter was subject to a matching grant from the City of $100,000 which will be provided from the Rockefeller grant.

The City will now move ahead with the initial phase of its Community Energy Efficiency Program. It has retained Abundant Power Solutions LLC to develop and administer the program. Under the program, citizens and business will be able to seek information on energy efficiency, the cost and benefit of upgrades, and ultimately financing for efficiency improvements. The financing aspect of the program was not discussed but the City has stated that it will be third party financing and the City will have no legal obligations.

Council members White and Alexander have been critical of the program since it was first proposed and continued so last night. Council member White disputed the likely benefits and savings that would arise for the program and Council member Alexander said that such a program was reliant on grants and subsidies. The largesse of the federal government in recent years could not continue, insinuating that the program ultimately was doomed.

New “Special Events” Ordinance
We expressed concern in Citizens Participation over the proposed “Special Events” Ordinance. The Ordinance requires the organizer of a “major” event that is expected to draw 1000 or more people to begin an application 120 days prior to the event. A “medium” event (500 to 1000 people) required 90 days and a “small” event (less than 500 people) 45 days notice. In contrast, a “commercial film or photography” event required only 3 days notice. Of course, there are fees attached. The application fees are nominal at $75 for a “major” event and declining thereafter. But there are other fees. They were cut off our handout document and on the City on-line document, unintentionally we believe.

Is the Ordinance an attempt to thwart such meetings as the recent Tea Parties, I thought? They were not planned 120 days in advance. What happens if something happens that stimulates a need for a large gathering immediately?

Council member Seekings asked Chief Mullen the purpose of the new ordinance and was told that a lot of preparation and planning was needed for “major” events. There was extra police supervision, street closures and alerts to members of the community. He also said that the Ordinance did not apply to events held on private property. The ordinance also called for the creation of committee. To act as an administrative board and to have authority to approve and issue Special Events and Temporary Event permits. This seemed good enough for the Council member. I still have reservations.

Does the City really need 120 days to plan for a “major” event? And indeed, couldn’t a “commercial or photography” event have a similar disruptive impact. The closure of Broad Street near the Exchange Building as happened some years ago for a film was disruptive. It still looks very suspicious to me.