Sheehan

Raleigh fails at selling building

Staff WriterFebruary 3, 2010 

On the surface, I know, it doesn't seem to make sense.

We're scrabbling to recover from the worst recession in memory, and the city wants to do what? Build a gleaming new public safety center with all the bells and whistles? Huh?

But the Lightner Center is a building the city has planned for - and needed desperately - for years. Many years.

And this is the right time to build.

Interest rates are rock bottom.

Construction costs have been slashed because work is so hard to come by.

And with so many people unemployed, the city can press for assurances that the work will be done by North Carolina workers.

Unfortunately, though, neither City Manager Russell Allen nor Mayor Charles Meeker has done a great job selling all this. Until now.

And now is almost too late.

See, the project was aimed for a vote by the Raleigh City Council, once, twice, three times. Finally, the mayor began to understand that some people, including some council members, were focusing on the price tag - and the political fallout from the probable property tax increase it will bring.

At a little sales pitch before The News & Observer's editorial board Monday, the mayor scoffed at the influence of anti-tax naysayers, such as Russell Capps and Dallas Woodhouse.

But at least Meeker is responding. He has asked Allen's staff to look into alternative revenue sources, including development fees, to ease the property tax burden over the next several years.

He said he fully expects the project's public art budget - as always, the source of heartburn in this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time community - to be capped at say, $250 grand.

Meeker acknowledges it might have been good to do a few dog-and-pony shows about the Lightner Center around the city before the project came to a vote. "We probably could have done a better job," he said.

Remarkably, the city manager is not burdened with such second thoughts.

Even now, with the vote delayed and the details up in the air, the city manager refuses to acknowledge that there is any significant public resistance to the Lightner Center. He maintains that the city has done a swell job of selling the project to residents - through the city's cable access shows! Now there's must-see TV. And he assured us in the editorial board meeting that every document related to the center is on the city's Web site. Though, how well organized it is, he wasn't sure. He hadn't checked.

Uh, who has?

In the end, Allen seems to think that each of us is responsible for slogging through City Council agendas and making sense of the Lightner Center project. I disagree. I believe it's up to city leaders to sell this new, 17-story building. Even if the project moves forward without a referendum - allowing us to capitalize on the low-interest rates and other savings - we need to be convinced.

Otherwise, the referendum becomes the next round ofcity elections.

I reminded Allen that Wake County school leaders claimed not to have heard any complaints about Wacky Wednesdays - right up until a new school board majority was voted in.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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