Monday, July 30, 2007

Field of Schemes

Layout of proposed athletic complex

On 16 July 2007, the Portsmouth City Council took one step closer to once again selling out the public, in this instance by approving the construction of an athletic complex in the economically broken heart of Portsmouth, the same broken heart of town that we have been told for years only a shopping mall could possibly mend. According to the mythology that passes for Portsmouth history, in 1980 several Evil Councilmen stopped the construction of a shopping mall. These Evil Councilmen put such a curse on Portsmouth that for twenty-five years no shopping mall was built. Even the most hallowed emporium of downtown Portsmouth, Marting’s Department Store, which was supposed to become the heart of the downtown shopping mall, went out of business.

Then, twenty-five years after the Evil Councilmen had prevented Portsmouth’s Sleepy Downtown from being awakened by the kiss of City Manager Barry Feldman, plans for another downtown shopping center were drawn up by Neal Hatcher, Portsmouth’s controversial real estate developer. In his usual bumptious manner, using his political stooges in city government and the threat of eminent domain, Hatcher began acquiring property in the heart of Portsmouth for his shopping mall. He acquired on John St. alone 22 pieces of property. Several years ago, I talked to a family on John St. who told me they believed Hatcher had deliberately neglected the property he acquired in the John St. neighborhood to drive the value of property down so that he could then buy what remained at depreciated prices. The family held him responsible for the drug addicts and prostitutes who gravitated to the wasteland he had turned John St. into. The John St. properties he acquired by previous street numbers, are as follows: 9, 630, 636, 638, 640, 702, 704, 708, 712, 714, 715, 718, 722, 802, 810, 811, 815, 816, 820, 918, 924, and 928.

John St.2027
A Hatcher property at 702 John St., 2004

Hatcher acquired many other properties that now are in the area designated for the athletic complex. On Moulton Place he acquired numbers 619, 623, 637, 641, 643, 645, and 647. On 8th St. he acquired numbers 1003, 1011, 1014, 1016, 1017, 1113, 1115, 1119, 1123, 1125, 1129, 1138, and 1140, all now within the athletic complex area. On 9th St. he acquired 1004, 1006, 1008, 1012, 1018, 1022, 1024, 1112, 1114, 1116, 1128, 1130, 1136, and 1140, also now within the athletic complex area. On Gallia St. he acquired numbers 1015 and 1021. On Findlay St. he acquired numbers 724 (the Workmen’s Compensation building), 816, 916, 918, 920, and 1026. On Waller St. he acquired number 423. On Gallia, Findlay, and 9th Streets, which presently define the southern, western, and northern limits of the athletic complex, he acquired properties on the other side of the street that presumably are outside the complex limits, but if any expansion is needed in those limits, he would be in a position to wheel and deal.

Most of the houses in the athletic complex area are gone, as is the Selby factory. Where once it had stood, employing thousands of workers, nothing remains but massive stone slabs piled up like corpses, which have been an eyesore for years. The acres of property Hatcher had acquired for his shopping mall lay devastated, like a London neighborhood that had been leveled by a German V2 rocket in the Second World War.

Hatcher’s critics accuse him of letting property he acquires fall into such disrepair that adjacent property values plummet and pressure is put on people to sell and move out. Take a look at the former Workmen’s Compensation building, at 724 Findlay St., a haunted hulk with creeping landscaping that Hatcher has owned for some time. That building has been gathering bird nests in its hair for years, the better to drive down property values and qualify the neighborhood as blighted. When neighborhoods are classified as blighted, it is easier to eminent-domain and tap into public funds for their “renewal.” I think of 724 Findlay not as the Workmen’s Compensation building but as the Real Estate Developer’s Compensation building, because we can count on Hatcher being paid “fairly” for it, even though it is worth next to nothing commercially in Portsmouth’s current real estate market.

724 Findlay: Hatcher's Decrepit Workmen's Comp Building

Something went wrong and Hatcher’s shopping mall never materialized. Like the shopping mall of 1980, Hatcher’s mall was a castle in the air. The Prince of Eminent Domain was faced with the prospect of a huge financial loss on all those acres he had bought. However, in accordance with the principle of No Building Left Behind, no Portsmouth property owner with political connections ever has to take a loss on any thing, whether it be a 126-year-old mummified department store, a leaking contaminated cable TV building, or acres of devastated land in the center of the city. All that is required is that somebody dream up some public use for the otherwise worthless property. Then sell or give the property to the city. So the location of new public projects are determined by where a business has failed or where a house or building belonging to a politically influential owner is falling apart. That is Portsmouth’s version of urban planning. And what makes it even worse is that those failing businesses provide the initial motivation for a public project. It is not the needs of the community that come first; it is the need of someone with influence to get rid of property that comes first. The future of Portsmouth gets tied to and is fueled by its failures. That is not a formula for success. It is a vicious cycle. Crooked politicians lobby for a new city building because Marting’s goes under; when Marting’s causes a firestorm, another site is found for a city building, the worthless Singer property on Washington St. When Kenrick’s goes belly up, we get a Welcome Center. Now, after Hatcher’s mall went kaput, we get an athletic complex. When asked why he robbed banks, Willy Sutton allegedly answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” If Kalb was as honest as Willy Sutton, when asked why the city builds its public projects where it does, he would answer “Because that’s where the over-privileged own property they want to unload on the public.”

It was probably one of the over-privileged, possibly the Prince of Darkness himself, tossing restlessly in bed late at night, who figured out how to unload twenty or so acres of devastated land that Hatcher was stuck with. What the center of the city needed was not a shopping mall but an athletic complex, not shoppers but athletes, and not professional athletes, either, but high school athletes, teenagers who could be portrayed in a public relations campaign as deserving kids as well as the economic saviors of downtown Portsmouth. Grammar school students were enlisted in the fight for the shopping mall back in 1980, but now high school students are now being enlisted in the campaign for the athletic complex. The argument is that “for the sake of the kids,” we need a massive athletic complex. “Gentlemen,” the high school football coach Skip Hickman told the the City Council at the July 16 meeting, “We’ve drug on for nine weeks. We need your help. Do it tonight, because it’s the right thing to do for the kids.” How has the city ever been able to get away with neglecting the kids for as long as it has? No wonder drug abuse has drug on as long as it has, and that teen pregnancies and academic underachievement have plagued our teenagers. Those of us who never had to play in Spartan Stadium or the baseball stadium should thank our lucky stars. That Howard Harcha IV played in both stadiums and went on to achieve the success he has is incredible. He deserves a mural on the flood wall. That a stadium that had been good enough for an NFL franchise should be good enough for a high school team, or that what was good enough for player-coach Jim Thorpe should be good enough for Skip Hickman – these are the arguments of nay sayers, like those evil Councilmen back in 1980, who stood in the way of the shopping mall. The scandal of letting kids play in Spartan Stadium has to stop. We have to turn the neighborhood that Hatcher had turned into a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers into a field of multimillion dollar athletic dreams. Ten million dollars is just the beginning, as anyone knows who wasn’t born yesterday.

Proposed site of PHS athletic complex

But if you build a multimillion dollar athletic complex, will they come to watch high school football and basketball games? Will they in such numbers and often enough to revive the center of the city economically? Or is that just one of the pie-in-the-sky economic predictions Supt. of Schools Broughton has made. This woman apparently will say and do anything to expand her bureaucratic empire, never mind what it is going to cost taxpayers. To believe her, the athletic complex will transform Portsmouth into a City of Prosperity. Some will probably disagree with the Shawnee Sentinel, which declared last November that “Since her appointment [as Superintendent of Schools] Jan Broughton has become embroiled with the most evil, mendacious, greedy un-elected wealthy gangsters in the City of Portsmouth.” The Sentinel has been proven right too many times to ignore. What sounds outrageous now, may be all too true down the road. We’ve got a Wall of Fame on the river side of the floodwall. What we need is a Wall of Shame. The athletic complex may be the deal that guarantees Broughton a place on that wall.

The athletic complex is not a Field of Dreams. It is a Field of Schemes, conceived in deceit and dedicated to the proposition that not only should Hatcher not have to pay a dime for his business mistakes but that he should be compensated “fairly” for them, to borrow Broughton’s term for how the property owners in the athletic complex area will be treated. According to school officials, Hatcher owns, about 70% to 80% of the less than hundred parcels of property in the proposed site of the complex. By my count, made on the County Auditor’s website, Hatcher owns 68 pieces of property in the area designated for the complex. If the relatively large area occupied by the Second Presbyterian Church is omitted from calculations, which it should since it is not going to be torn down, Hatcher’s 68 pieces constitutes at least 90% of the property. So, when Broughton talks about treating property owners “fairly,” which would be a first, what she is really talking about is treating Hatcher fairly. The city and the school system must not take advantage of him and drive a hard bargain, which is of course is what would happen if we were talking about free market economics instead of Portsmouth corporate welfare economics. If Portsmouth had a competitive, free enterprise economy, Hatcher would pay dearly for his mall folly. But it doesn’t and Hatcher won’t. The public will pay.

The best argument against the athletic complex, perhaps the only serious argument, is economic. The “kids” will be playing their games on untaxable fields and untaxable field houses that will cost the city millions in taxes to build and maintain. Not only are those facilities not going to make a profit, they are not even going to pay for themselves. The city already has an athletic complex – a historic football stadium with an adjoining practice field, a decent baseball stadium, and several Little League and softball fields, located near the river front, in an easily accessible area not far from downtown Portsmouth, an area where an upgraded athletic complex could be conveniently and more economically built, if a new or upgraded athletic complex was what the city really needed most. But of course a new athletic complex is not what the city needs most, not given the hidden costs associated with it.

"It Ain't Worth Anything"

Leave it to Marty Mohr to be the one to let the cat out of the bag. “It ain’t worth anything,” he said famously of the Marting Building to a Columbus Dispatch reporter back in June 2004. That was before he saw the light in Clayton Johnson’s office, recanted, and supported the Marting’s purchase. Mohr let another cat out of the bag, at the July 16th council meeting, when he said less succinctly but a little more grammatically, “All the developments in our community seem to be non-taxable developments. They might be supplying jobs, but there’s no property taxes there. What bothers me the most is the schools thrive on property taxes. You would think they’d want to generate more property taxes.” The only property taxes that Portsmouth high school and Broughton are going to generate are from the property owners of Portsmouth, who are going to be paying taxes through the nose. That’s the bottom line on this whole athletic complex scheme. This is a game, and the outcome is fixed: the public will pay.

One of the great benefits of high school athletics, in addition to the exercise it provides, is that they promote the competitive attitude in young people that makes them as adults willing to work hard and strive. Athletics help make the US the strong nation it is. But the irony is that competition is just what is lacking in the Portsmouth economy. What we have is the equivalent of fixed games in which our public officials are the crooked referees. Our Portsmouth business and professional classes don’t compete with each other; they collude with each other. We recall how Hatcher and the city colluded to turn the 3rd St. neighborhood into a blighted area to facilitate his construction of student dormitories. The deal Hatcher worked out on those dormitories was a no-lose deal in which the university, a public entity, takes most of the risk and Hatcher almost none at all. That’s the only kind of economy the over-privileged of Portsmouth are willing to take part in, one in which risk is removed from any project they undertake, no matter how risky or hare-brained it is.

I have heard that the only way the King’s Daughters Hospital got a foothold in Portsmouth was by acquiring the property on the Scioto Trail without revealing that they were the real purchasers. If the Portsmouth establishment, and the CEO of SOMC in particular, had known, they probably would have found a way to block the move. I don’t know if this is anything more than a rumor, but I do know that the County Auditor’s website shows that the TPA Land Company of Ashland, Kentucky, bought the property at 2001 Scioto Trail in April of 2006 and TPA is still listed as the owner on the Auditor’s website. Competition is the last thing those who control Portsmouth’s economy and city government want. Instead of spending millions of advertising dollars to saturate local media with the claim that “Very good things are happening here,” SOMC should put those advertising millions into making SOMC better able to compete with King’s Daughters. When it comes to hospitals, King’s Daughters is the team to beat in the tri-state league, and competing with, not excluding it, is the surest way to make very good things happen for the people of Portsmouth.

Always willing to advise wealthy widows on their wills and bequests, our local foundations have found benefactors willing to give millions to the new athletic complex. These millions are not outright gifts; they provide tax benefits for the donors. Foundations sometimes launder money that might otherwise end up in the form of taxes in public treasuries. Many wealthy people would rather leave it up to a foundation, rather than the government, to decide how their money will be spent. And who can blame them? But there are foundations and there are “foundations.” What we have in Portsmouth are “foundations,” like the Marting Foundation. It is untrue that the athletic complex will not cost the public plenty of money, both up front as tax breaks for philanthropists and down the line in the form of taxes on property owners. That the athletic complex is a cost-free project that the citizens would be crazy to turn down is an argument fostered by those, like Hatcher and Broughton, who stand to gain by promoting it. Just look at the hidden costs to the city, financially and municipally, of Dr. Singer’s donation of his commercially worthless Washington St. property. With the revenue the athletic complex will not generate over the next twenty-five years, with the flood of traffic that will not come across the Bridge to Nowhere to see high school athletes play, we could finance a renovation of the existing athletic complex by the river that would do the city proud. Instead, we have to trash the past.

Trashing the past

Clayton Johnson is quoting as saying the athletic complex will attract families to Portsmouth. What might attract the kind of families the city needs is not a multi-million dollar athletic complex and state of the art school buildings but a reputation for academic excellence. If the Portsmouth city school system ever had a reputation for academic excllence, it has long since lost it. The city schools need first-rate teachers and first-rate students more than they need first-rate athletes. The money that has been poured into school buildings and will be poured into an athletic complex would have been better spent improving the working conditions and salaries of teachers and the strengthening of academic programs.

Broughton boasts that the city is successfully marketing the new athletic complex and new high school. You don’t judge the quality of school system by the look of its campus any more than you should judge a person by his or her clothes or automobile. It would be far better for the future of the city if Portsmouth High School had a reputation as one of the best scholastically in the state. I know from my experience at Shawnee State that pouring millions and millions of public dollars into new buildings and a new campus is no guarantee that a school will not have a reputation as not only one of the worst in the state but in the nation, as was the case with SSU in the 1990s. SSU got its horrendous reputation in part because Clive Veri was president during the 90s. Veri had a vision for the university that came straight out of a Hollywood musical of the 1930s. Semesters, fraternities, and football were his remedy for what ailed the university. He got the fraternities, and his designated successor, de facto president Stephen P. Donohue, got the semesters, but the football program fortunately never materialized. It was not that football was bad, anymore than semesters were bad. It’s just that they were not right for SSU at this stage of its development. Now Clayton Johnson, Neal Hatcher, and Jan Broughton are doing for Portsmouth High School, big time, what Veri fortunately failed to do for SSU. Portsmouth will live with the fiscal and educational consequences of their greed and deceit for many years to come. And we will all be losers. Let the games begin!