Friday, April 04, 2008

Marting Madness

A Portsmouth native who is a friend of mine, and who knows the history of the city better than I do, recently told me that he absolutely cannot understand why the city government is determined to spend up to $20 million dollars to renovate the 125-year-old empty, moldy, and leaking Marting department store building for city offices. It doesn’t make any sense. At times it seems loony. My friend is baffled, and so am I, and so are the vast majority of other Portsmouth residents and taxpayers. Yet the proponents of the Marting building, led by the lawyer and deal-maker Clayton Johnson, are proceeding even though they know they will continue to be resisted politically and legally for having defied the will of the majority of the voters, who demonstrated though the democratic processes available to them, through recalls and a referendum, that they want no part of the madness of renovating the Marting building.

Captain Clayton

Clayton Johnson is not leading the city forward. He is leading the city backward, all the way back to 1883, when the Marting department store building was erected. He is leading the city backward to more turmoil, to more referenda, to more litigation, and to more delay. The 125-year-old Marting building, which is hidden behind a phony brick fa├žade (even the bricks are phony), is commercially and architecturally worthless and should have been torn down ten years ago. But it wasn’t. Why? I am not a lawyer, or an architect, or a psychiatrist, but I am a student of American literature, and I find in what is considered the great American novel, Moby Dick, a possible explanation for the Marting Madness.

When Clayton Johnson cooked up the Marting deal, he overreached. He got too greedy. He put a price tag of $2 million dollars on the Marting building, which was appraised for no more than $700,000 plus, and even that figure was much higher than it should have been. He overreached when he conspired with crooked city officials to sell the building to the city for $2 million. He didn’t act very smart. When the mayor and council members who conspired with him were recalled from office by outraged voters, Johnson was embarrassed. The man with the reputation as the smartest lawyer in town suddenly looked dumb, and greedy. He avoided talking with a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch who was writing a feature story on the whole mess. What could Johnson say? When the Mollettes brought suit and the Marting deal was invalidated by the courts for the secret and illegal way it had been put together, Johnson would have been not just embarrassed but professionally and personally humiliated.

Hoisted on his own Pequod

The white whale cost Captain Ahab a leg. The blowup of the Marting deal cost Clayton Johnson his reputation as Portsmouth’s smartest lawyer. The only thing Johnson appears to have more of than money is pride. After that loss, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. When Ahab lost his leg, he vowed revenge. When Johnson lost his reputation, he vowed to get even, if my analogy is valid. He negotiated another crooked deal with the city in which he stuck the city with the the 125-year-old Marting building and the Marting Foundation kept the $2 million, or what was left after his legal fees were paid, setting a number of conditions that had to be met before he would return the money. He’d show them, the Portsmouth rabble who did not even know how to set an alarm clock! Among the conditions he set was that the Marting building had to find a new retail tenant – a virtual impossibility – or be used for city offices.

The name of Ahab’s ship was the Pequod. Ahab’s pursuit of the whale made no sense economically or ethically. In his mad pursuit of the white whale, Ahab endangered the Pequod and its crew. With his Marting Madness, Johnson is financially endangering Portsmouth and its taxpayers. At the end of Moby Dick, the ship and crew go to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Where and when and how is it going to end in Portsmouth with our mad Ahab and his motley crew? God only knows.

Marting Building: Very Like A Whale