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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FROM WALLINGFORD - Vision and sophistication

This week’s from Wallingford is written by Stephen Knight and is presented as published in the Record Journal on Sunday August 21, 2011


Halleluiah! An agreement to extend the lease of the parking lot behind Simpson Court has been reached. Not only that, but the Town Council has very wisely voted to invest (more on that word later) almost $500K in improvements to the property.

But almost instantly, a group of people, all of whom cut their teeth on the Wooding- Caplan referendum of yore, took to the streets denouncing the agreement as contrary to the public interest because the money is to be spent on improvements to private property. I want to analyze their contention in three ways: the maintenance of a healthy downtown, the investment to the property and the use of public funds.

First of all, who benefits from the improvements? Opponents would have us believe that only the four property owners do. Nonsense. We all do, because a viable town center benefits each and every one of us, whether it’s in the property values of our homes or the quality of life we all wish to have. And that viability only exists because people want to come downtown. And they will only drive downtown if they know to a certainty that safe, convenient parking is available for their car. No parking? No people. No people? No successful downtown.

Secondly, let’s look at this investment. Yes, the Town of Wallingford is spending taxpayer money improving a piece of private property. But we are leasing this property. The owners are giving up control of the property. For thirty years.

Frankly, I think it took a real leap of faith on the part of the four owners to make this deal. Without the parking behind their buildings, their property is worth zilch. It is a credit to them, and to the town government, that there is enough trust between the parties to enter into such a sweeping and lengthy arrangement.

Lastly, let’s put two public investments announced in the same week side by side: the $500,000 for downtown parking, and the $323,000 for solar panels at Gaylord Hospital. Now before I go any further, let me just state that I think the world of Gaylord, its work and its management. This isn’t about them. It’s about comparing public benefits.

Okay, so the Town of Wallingford spends money on the parking lot. It directly benefits every single merchant downtown, and it indirectly benefits every single property owner in town because the downtown remains vibrant. You don’t need to be a professional urban planner to see the bright line connecting this investment with the benefits to the entire community. It’s obvious.

And yet, the same people of the same political persuasion that find this project such a breach of public protocol will hail handing a check for $323,000 of taxpayer funds to a private entity where the direct public benefit is virtually nonexistent, and even the indirect benefit of supposedly helping to save the planet is, putting it as kindly as I can, tenuous. With all due respect to Gaylord Hospital, all the benefits that will accrue from this government largesse will only benefit them. They will save $25,000 a year in heating oil cost, and this government handout will enable them to recoup their $550K investment in a reasonable nine years rather than the twenty-two years it would take if they had to pay for the entire project themselves.

When municipal governments turn their back on their downtown centers, the result is more than the sight of boarded up storefronts, empty streets, decaying buildings and economic loss. The real loss is in the sense of community that a strong, pleasant and inviting downtown brings to a town. Keeping that from happening takes both vision and sophistication: the vision to see the totality of the benefits and the sophistication to see that those benefits are accruing to all the citizens and not just a few. Surely the citizens of our town have both in abundance.

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