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EDITORIAL: Project near MSA may be worth the risk

June 22, 2009

The city unveiled a dramatic plan to revitalize the old Market Square Arena area just two days before the Metropolitan Development Commission approved the deal June 3.

That the public was given insufficient notice of the project is among a number of legitimate complaints about the proposed $65 million effort to redevelop the former Bank One operations center into apartments, as IBJ reported in a page 1 story last week. The project also would include retail and more housing on adjacent parking lots.

The city has not handled this announcement perfectly. And the deal relies on depriving the cash-strapped Capital Improvement Board of an income stream even as the city seeks to prop up the agency. But none of this means the development project in its broadest sense is a bad idea.

The neglected east side of downtown has been screaming for new life since before Market Square Arena was imploded eight years ago. And the potential is magnified now that the Market Street interstate ramp is gone. This project calls for 600 apartments. When people move downtown, businesses follow.

The $18.5 million the city is paying for an adjacent parking garage is too much. But downtown projects face obstacles (parking perhaps first among them) that don't hamper suburban development, so the city often has helped kick-start downtown construction with subsidies.

The agreement with developer Tadd M. Miller does include protections for the city. For example, the project gives the city an income-producing parking garage, which could help restart the long-stalled attempt to redevelop the MSA site itself. Also, the performance benchmarks for the developer are more aggressive than usual. The first one arrives just 90 days after the deal is signed.

Should the city have given the public more than 48 hours to consider the project? Absolutely. Should the city have been upfront about the fact that the garage payment is a way to support the project, as opposed to a fair market price? Yes again.

Should the city have explored other development options or waited until a stronger market created a better deal? Perhaps. But sometimes you've got to seize opportunity. Potential for spin-off growth on the near-east side is huge.

"This could continue like a snowball down a hill for the next seven-10 years," said Nick Weber, the city's deputy mayor for economic and workforce development.

Let's work out the kinks and get the ball rolling.

Horse tracks shouldn't bet on help

The area's two horse racing tracks are hoping to come up winners in the legislative special session, but bailing them out is a proposal that shouldn't leave the gate.

Officials of Hoosier Park Racing & Casino in Anderson and Indiana Live Casino in Shelbyville say they are at a severe financial disadvantage to the state's 11 riverboat casinos. Unlike riverboats, horse tracks must pay hefty state licensing fees, and their taxes are much higher.

The plight of the horse tracks is unfortunate, but many other industries also are hurting, and the state can ill afford to give up any revenue right now.

If the state can't even shore up the Capital Improvement Board after months of effort, gambling interests should have to wait.•

To comment on these editorials, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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