Dear All Freeport Illinois Leaders, The Peanut Gallery Has A Few Questions

 

Freeport – At last week’s Freeport City Council meeting (held December 21, 2015) as is usually the case, a number of things were on the agenda for council members and the executive branch to discuss and vote on. One of those items up to city council was a vote on a $120,000 TIF spending plan lobbied by the group City Centre Freeport and sponsored by 2nd Ward alderman Peter McClanathan.

Like you perhaps, I haven’t really “engaged” much in politics. I’ve known things, kept abreast on topics, but I haven’t really spoken out much beyond passionate discussions with a close friend.  Passionate as in the moment wanting to strangle each other, yet times always ending in a double pepperoni pizza and yet a few more laughs to add to our decades of other once in a lifetime moments. I’ll dare say you’ll never see a photo of me holding a political sign. Mainly because it is my belief that I learn more staying on the outside. As a coach would (and even better, a coach in the stands), they see what the first baseman doesn’t do as well as what the left fielder does.

Staying on the outside offers a more thorough overview. Instead of engaging in topics, I hear ideas and observe their results. Like the baseball analogy in a way, except these plays take 5 years. If it were baseball, you can imagine how boring it has been to watch.  In most cases, I’d “rather” watch paint dry.

In case you haven’t heard though, there is a new phrase sweeping parts of the city and touching on the hopes of a few area residents. Occasionally someone, usually a group of people, will come together for a cause and soon the people of Freeport begin hearing a little noise about a new plan, new idea or project in the works for Freeport. Some revitalization, Community Development, Shop Local phrase repeated so often that if hearing them were a drinking game we’d all be drunk right now. Who knows, maybe we are.

The new phrase of hope today, is called City Centre Freeport and it’s an initiative with big “ideas” (and a great start) on what could be the start of proven model to aiding in revitalizing our downtown. It’s also a big plan that wants (and got approval at Monday’s meeting) to use your tax dollars to fund it, or more specifically TIF dollars. Proponents involved in City Centre Freeport spoke at the Committee of the Whole meeting and at Monday’s city council meeting.

VIDEO: Here is Dean Wright’s presentation to the council Monday December 21, 2015

 

This is where, at least for me, it gets interesting and, a little hazy. Apparently, it was a little hazy for others too because I wasn’t entirely convinced everyone really understood the TIF plan, nor does it seem, that downtown itself even has a plan. Well, the TIF plan is for downtown, I mean, sort of I guess.

You see, in 1994, under much controversy, a fund called Tax Increment Financing was created in Freeport. Tax increment financing (TIF) is a tool that allows municipalities to promote economic development by earmarking property tax revenue from increases in assessed values within a designated TIF district. We didn’t invent it, other cities utilize this too.

It basically takes the value of a certain area, property or building and values it. As it increases in value, (because of what we or the owners of property do) money from that increase is added to the TIF fund for use on revitalization of our city. More specifically in Freeport, to our downtown. In fact, the TIF was specifically created for revitalization of our downtown but from what we gather, hasn’t always been used for such and its purpose for that seems cloudy. It is beyond the scope of this article to say how much money in total has been generated since 1994 and where it’s all gone, but hang on… (let’s see 2015 minus 1994…. okay, 21 years), sorry, I just wanted to do the math real quick.

We do know 21 years have passed since it was enacted.

So, to set the stage at Monday’s city council meeting, City Centre Freeport over the past two meetings has stated their plan and now wants $120,000 in TIF money for their redevelopment plan.  Tonight city council is voting on it.

City Centre Freeport had proposed previously that David Young of NIDA, (Northwest Illinois Development Alliance) who also spoke but at the Committee of the Whole meeting, be the “project manager”. In other words, from what it appeared, give NIDA $120,000 TIF to spend as it determined in the name of City Centre Freeport, which to play devils advocate, didn’t have much of a financial plan that I saw other than reference made of a financial “toolbox” and some analogy involving lasagna and not quite exactly knowing how to make it. (I know, but don’t shoot the messenger)

Here is the amended Resolution To Authorize Agreement between NIDA and the City dated December 21, 2015. NIDA Update City Contract December 21, 2015. Check made payable to NIDA.

This is where things get a little muddy.

VIDEO:  Mary Riordan the Chicago-based attorney who handles the city’s TIF legalities explaining that the city cannot just be a party to the results and essentially cannot have a 3rd party manage TIF funds.

 

There’s a few things that stand out here. One, is that there is even a discussion about TIF, its plan and the exact method or process it uses to carry out it’s own mission. In other words, why would City Centre Freeport even propose a plan that has a project manager (NIDA) when the legalities behind TIF do not allow for that? Further, why would the city have to call in their legal expert to explain to the city council, the public or City Centre Freeport the legalities behind TIF, if city council or the Mayor already knew TIF money is not managed that way? I mean, this isn’t the first time at the TIF rodeo is it?

Not only am I questioning why no one knows the TIF rules of engagement (for lack of a better term), I am also starting to question how it can be remotely possible that in 21 years we don’t have a solid, clear and concise working plan to downtown development through the use of TIF funds.

In 21 years I’ve went from a college kid, to old age. From having hair, to a bald guy. I’ve went from hating broccoli, to loving broccoli. In 21 years I’ve went from changing diapers, to maybe wearing them myself soon. In 21 years the spacecraft “Voyager” has traveled 6.1 billion miles nearly reaching the edge of our solar system. Why is not the movement City Centre Freeport simply an extension or another “arm” in the already existing (and publicly praised) clearly visible downtown revitalization plan?

In other words, we have this plan right now, this one we started in 1994 and we’re in Stage 3,  but what we don’t have is this “arm” to our plan. City Centre Freeport comes along and says “hey city” we’re that arm. That would make sense to me, but that’s not exactly what is happening here.

To further confuse things, there’s been much discussion over NIDA over the years. NIDA stands for Northwest Illinois Development Alliance and has had somewhat of a cloud looming over it among some in the Freeport community. This article doesn’t attempt to have an opinion on NIDA either way other than to state that there are concerns among some.

VIDEO: Alderman Mike Koester stated his concerns about having NIDA appointed as the project manager. Alderman Koester says he’s questioned NIDA for some time now about whether they’re even doing the job for the money the city gives them.

 

But hang on a second. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? If the city can’t have a 3rd party manage its TIF money towards a specific project brought to it, by essentially the citizens such as City Centre Freeport, than what on earth is Alderman Koester talking about when he says he’s not sure if NIDA is even doing their job for the money we “already” pay them?

What money we already pay them?

That answer, is the $100,000 dollars the city pays them and over the years, has paid them in varying increments. As I mentioned earlier, I make no attempt to encompass all of TIF’s finances in this article, however I do know that TIF money can be carried over and that for 2016 the TIF fund had some $400,000 dollars in it. I also know that NIDA gets a check every year, (100k I believe), Freeport Downtown Development Foundation gets a check every year, a few local marketing organizations get TIF money (not ours) and I also know TIF money has went to the Rawleigh complex. I believe TIF money was also used to help get Wal-Mart here.

As you might suspect though, we weren’t the only one’s who now had a question about NIDA, however, the curiosity wasn’t in what money we already pay them; it wasn’t what NIDA did with the money we already gave them other than what Alderman Mike Koester stated; the question asked was why hasn’t anyone complained about the money we do give them to the point being, why are we now.

VIDEO: Alderman Andrew Chesney asks Attorney Mary Riordan why concerns haven’t been raised over NIDA before.

 

So Alderman Chesney just asked why NIDA has been able to spend TIF money under a loosely constructed commission previously with not a lot of oversight by the council. While yes, I know, on the onset it seems like a logical question, however, did we just open up an entire new set of scenarios in this Chess Match? Frankly, I really didn’t think any part of this process, from how City Centre Freeport “sold the idea” to the council to how the city council reacted to it, would be as confusing as it appears to have been.

First, according to Riordan if you recall, NIDA (a 3rd party) isn’t supposed to be able to spend TIF money under a loosely constructed commission as I understood. (2nd video from above) That’s why she was there in the first place. So, from what I got out of the conversation, we can’t do what apparently – we are doing, (and just forget for a moment that they just approved a plan that initially aimed to do it yet again). That’s one.

Two, she didn’t really answer the question. She just said she doesn’t know about contracts the city has made with NIDA and she’s never seen one.  She had already eluded earlier that it was the city council’s job/role to manage “where the money goes” anyway.

To be clear, I am not in any way singling out any current city council member here. TIF has been around since 1994 which means a couple mayors and a number of city council members. It just appears very evident to me that since 1994 any TIF “plan” that was or is here has gotten lost, or, perhaps never had a clear plan to begin with. Everyone seemed very confused.

VIDEO: Attorney Mary Riordan responds to concerns over allocating money to this proposed plan.

 

Clearly by all this city council has no clue where the money that NIDA gets is currently going, nor do they appear to know the necessary steps or process to utilizing citizen initiatives, in rolling out any kind of development plan such as what City Centre Freeport laid in their lap. Equally, the TIF Attorney is visibly confused by the council’s confusion. Either that, or there is no problem with a 3rd party essentially making financial decisions with TIF money, which therefore would mean something is fishy with having the city’s TIF Attorney present saying there is. It may also mean that the executive branch merely has a problem with NIDA, (which the Mayor & Alderman Koester did state concerns of) which presents the question then why are we giving money to them now?

Frankly, none of it makes any sense.

  1. Why does no one apparently know the rules of engagement with TIF?
  2. Why in 21 years do we not have a solid, clear and concise plan to downtown development through the use of TIF funds.
  3. Why when Alderman Koester commented about where NIDA’s money goes, did no one speak up and answer, “here’s what NIDA does with the money we give them”.
    1. Further, why would a council not have that conversation when considering giving NIDA another $120,000.
  4. Why are we saying NIDA can’t manage this new 120k but the other 100k it already does manage, that apparently isn’t a; itemized expenses known by city council and b; isn’t necessarily supposed to be so loosely overseen according to the TIF attorney, is fine.
  5. Is it ok that NIDA spends TIF money under a loosely constructed commission, or isn’t it.
  6. If it isn’t, why would we approve another plan that initially aimed to allow NIDA to do it yet again.
  7. If it is, then why did we approve a plan for $120,000 without appointing a commission of people to carry it out, (and of course, why bring our TIF attorney to the city council meeting.)

We can’t just assign a project manager in this case and hand them a check for $120,000 because that’s not really acting in accordance with TIF law (even though we already do that) and since we don’t have appointed members of a commission to carry out this plan, on that basis lets go ahead and vote and then approve 120k for the new revitalization plan.

What am I missing?

And while all of the above might just be enough to make you give up on politics and stop attending city council meetings altogether (oh wait, most of you already have) if you hang on it gets just a little bit better.

VIDEO: Attorney Mary Riordan responds to Alderman Andrew Chesney’s comments.

 

Yes, you heard correctly. I’ve never even heard of NIDA says city TIF Attorney Mary Riordan. And I’ll just stop right there. I really don’t even know what to say. The only word that comes to mind is detached, prefaced by not any one individual, just more of a representation of the system in which we live in. It makes me kind of sad.

To the city council’s credit, I wasn’t privy to a financial plan or the City Centre Freeport roll-out plan that (I presume) the council had available to them. Typically, in an idea such as this, you might have a 25-75 page plan in which would contain fairly specific information about your idea, how you’re going to carry it out with pretty pictures and charts and how it’s going to finance itself.  Somewhat of a business plan. Again, I wasn’t privy to any of those documents if available.

I only say that because from my vantage point, the public’s vantage point, all I saw was 4-5 people on two occasions all speak in under 3 minute increments each. I didn’t hear specifics and as a citizen who is (naturally) attempting to make up their own mind, I felt very uninformed even with the media coverage, including my own 20 minute interview with Dean Wright.

Equally I was surprised to already see so much eagerness to approve the plan within city council, especially after the “we’re not really sure how to make lasagna analogy”, (not to mention NIDA, 3rd party, no commission, etc…)  Things got a little wishy-washy at that point for me. The room however almost felt urgent to approve, as if city council hadn’t dated in a while and someone came along and finally paid attention to them. Yes! We’ll go out with you!

I suppose to my own fault at times my logical approach to some things could be to any failings here, but how do we not have a plan for the marketing, branding, retail, residency and visible streetscape for our downtown by now? Honestly. Why haven’t decades ago the so obvious plans and goals of an idea like City Centre Freeport already made their way into our revitalization “culture” and, actively being accomplished.

Anyone?

So many monumental plans. Is City Centre Freeport really, finally, the start of what should already be? While I would love nothing more than to see City Centre Freeport actually accomplish all it says, truth is I would have been happy with any one of the other plans we’ve had before and, so would other people it appears.

In the elevator on the way up to the 3rd floor, two others had joined me for our trip up to the city council meeting. I took the opportunity before me and I asked them what they thought of the City Centre Freeport initiative. They both said they “hope it works out for them“. When asked about specifics, one told me they can’t see that there are 82 apartments downtown and besides “who would live in them” they said. They also said they feel we’ve had enough plans. Vision 2020, Prospering Together, Rawleigh, etc…, but they did express “hope” this could work.

That’s just a random sample of public opinion.

Additionally, I have spoken with downtown business owners and have heard things such as “downtown has tried before to utilize TIF money” and according to them, they “haven’t gotten very far”. Others told me this plan is “just more of the same, talk, studies and plans”.

A few months back Dean Wright outlaid an initiative for his ward by the FACC, citing community development, a park and other great ideas. Now we’ve learned because of state budget and other factors, that plan has been put on hold. Here we are again though with yet another “plan”.

There are a lot of good people in Freeport. There are lot of people engaged in our local government, non-profit organizations; there are amazing citizens in this city and there are engaged business owners who have done a lot of good for the people of Freeport. Dean Wright and FACC alone have helped thousands of people.

I genuinely am excited about City Centre Freeport. I am happy to see such enthusiasm towards yet another a new effort. I am excited to hear of this “new downtown” being spoken of; a downtown filled with people, residents, shoppers and shops. I am excited to hear of these streetsscape ideas and I already envision what the downtown might look like in 5 years or 10 years. (Imagine what it will look like in 21 years!) I love seeing citizens come together with ideas, action plans, drive and enthusiasm, but…

  • I was equally excited in 1994 when the TIF fund was created.
  • I was also excited when I heard of Freeport Downtown Development Foundation.
  • I was excited when I heard of Vision 2020
  • I was excited when I heard of Prospering Together.
  • I was just as excited when I heard of the Rawleigh Complex. In fact I think there’s still a sign outside of the building hailing all of the wonderful things “to come”.

While I don’t sit here before you today saying City Centre Freeport is a bad idea, (because in its essence it’s a great idea) I do stand here a proponent for cautionary awareness of its process, measured by its results. One reason is due to simple common sense. If all the previous plans Freeport has seen were so damn good, then why aren’t we doing them now.

Two, because the first news after City Centre Freeport is announced is NIDA (who is already questioned) announcing they aim to spend $100,000 on a consultant from Chicago to determine Freeport’s image and help “brand” our town. So, the first expense goes to Chicago, which by itself says a lot, but it also says we don’t believe in the people of Freeport, by implying our city has no branding or marketing experts or anyone at all from within who could “tell our story” better. Hmm, that’s interesting.

The other part of cautionary reason two is due to another announcement made by NIDA saying they also plan to build on previous efforts, such as a 2010 comprehensive plan and the 2012 prospering together plan. (as I mentioned above). So, we’re going to go kick a dead horse around.

Look, I don’t make any claims that I’m sane or in any way any more normal than the next person, but I do know that the current amount in the TIF fund of $400,000, which is money towards a plan, that as Attorney Mary Riordan explicitly stated amidst confusion is for downtown revitalization, is an awful lot of money.

I also know that from a public perspective, when our city accomplishes just one thing, we are completely overjoyed. For example, the Jackowski, Mahoney & Hauser building. Just finishing up the side of the building made the public react in such a positive way it was incredible. We’re excited over the Wagner building that City Centre Freeport has aligned itself with. We’re excited over new trails, Lady Liberty, we’re excited when we “see” action. Are we really excited over another plan, especially one that’s rolling itself out like this?

A long time ago someone very wise left me with these words. I had big visions of doing all of these wonderful “life changing” things and I desperately was seeking this individuals approval. I was stating how I was going to do this, and how I was going to get that done and I even explained how I was going to do it all. I’ll never forget what this person told me.

Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, go do it and come tell me what you’ve done.

Maybe these are all the reasons the public doesn’t attend council meetings. Maybe this is what cities across our country want. This way they can spend our money and come up with plans like this that help line their own pockets with your taxpayer money. If they keep you confused, keep you frustrated you just write it off. They then have full riegn on how to spend your money and the worst part, you’re never there to argue any differently.

I hope this plan works, but I must say that I fear this is just more of the same. I hope they all prove me wrong, because I’ll write just as big of a story about their success and my doubt in it as I did here about questions from the peanut gallery.

Until then however and as with every plan before it, I guess time will tell.

Yours truly,

Greg

 

2 thoughts on “Dear All Freeport Illinois Leaders, The Peanut Gallery Has A Few Questions

  • December 29, 2015 at 9:06 am
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    If I remember a few years back we the citizens of Freeport questioned the NIDA thing. And I have a question. Why is it we always need to go out side our city to head our plans? I feel that is money unnecessarily spent. Don’t we have any educated people in our city to take care of our own plans and our own money? Just like the area out by Kelly Springfield plant. What a farce that was. Alot of money spent that could of been used in our city. As the old saying goes, Keep your money in your own pocket!

  • December 29, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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    And the irony… is Mills Race Crossing (by Kelly Springfield) finally came to be a manufacturing facility that grows a plant (marijuana) that previously (and currently) citizens get arrested and jailed for. What a crazy paradox in time we live in.

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