I have always had the tendency of giving people the benefit of the doubt. My wife used to say it was one of my greatest strengths – and one my greatest weaknesses.
I know exactly what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meant when she said, “I’m an optimist – but I worry a lot.”
Is it possible for the public to give city officials the benefit of the doubt on the latest actions regarding the River City Renaissance project?
Last Tuesday, the City Council agreed to move forward with the project by voting to work with Gatehouse Capital as the developer.
Even the most optimistic among us is skeptical -- and why shouldn’t we be? The project has been kicked around for five years and has been plagued by many questionable decisions.
Things looked promising a year ago when Mason City voters approved two public issues related to the project with 70 percent approval. At the time, Gatehouse was the only developer in the picture so the results were seen as a public vote of confidence in Gatehouse.
But within weeks, a snag in negotiations created a situation in which the city had to give other developers a chance to bid on the project. G8, which had defaulted earlier as the hotel developer, submitted a bid lower than Gatehouse’s – and the council dumped Gatehouse in favor of G8. Some voters who approved the public measures weeks earlier accused the council of “bait and switch.”
This year, when G8 once again failed to meet financing requirements, the council pulled the plug on it and now has agreed to pick up the pieces with Gatehouse.
Here are some facts to toss into the “benefit of the doubt” blender.
• The Gatehouse proposal is essentially the same as the one a year ago when voters approved the two public issues. So the public, in effect, has already backed the Gatehouse plan.
• Two pre-construction payments to Gatehouse, one for $100,000 and another for $150,000 will be refunded to the city when construction starts.
• Officials seem poised to resolve the back taxes issue with the Kohan company that owns Southbridge Mall, thereby removing another nemesis in the project.
• The Iowa Economic Development Authority remarkably still has confidence in the success of the project. It is to distribute nearly $10 million, over a period of years, to help the project along, It is just waiting for the city to meet all requirements.
• City Administrator Aaron Burnett, Mayor Bill Schickel and the mostly-new City Council inherited this mess from the previous city administration.
Leadership styles in the city have changed drastically in the past year. Former Mayor Eric Bookmeyer was aggressive and sometimes gruff as he promoted his agenda and had no use for those who disagreed with him. Schickel is more of a facilitator, always trying to bring people together to reach consensus. Some feel his style is not aggressive enough.
One thing is for sure. Citizens are anxious for a winner and most are anxious to give the city the benefit of the doubt.
They’re optimistic – but they worry a lot.
John Skipper retired from the Globe Gazette in February 2018 after 52 years in newspapers, most of that in Mason City covering North Iowa government and politics.