October 5, 2012 in City

Vestal: Anthony’s decision demands second look

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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What should we do with the most spectacular piece of property the city is selling?

Deal it quick to the highest bidder? Or give it another moment or two of thought?

This is the question that has arisen over the Anthony’s property, that premium, beautiful spot on the north side of the Spokane River, at the foot of the Spokane Falls, across from the old Washington Water Power building.

Having decided to sell the land, Mayor David Condon more or less chose and announced the high bidder. But the City Council, which must approve the sale, has balked, in part over the mayor’s failure to alert them that he was announcing a decision, let alone provide a more detailed rationale for selecting the owner of Anthony’s, whose bid of $3.9 million came in above the other bid of $3.6 million.

That might ultimately be the right call. But there are more community values involved than a fast $300,000, and before this forever decision is final the administration should live up to Condon’s inauguration-day promise to make decisions in an “open, accountable and responsive” way.

His response on this question has fallen short of that. Asked by members of the City Council to provide the details for his decision, the administration responded in a manner that verged on the insulting, providing a hastily compiled, 97-word rehash of a few well-known facts. To call it sketchy would be an insult to sketches. To present it as evidence of due diligence is casual negligence.

The city bought the land 15 years ago for the ill-fated Lincoln Street Bridge project. It has been leasing it to Mad Anthony’s Restaurants, owner of Anthony’s, since 2004. As part of the mayor’s 100-day “action plan,” he evaluated 1,600 city-owned properties to see if they should be sold. When it came to the Anthony’s property the answer seems to have been an uncontroversial yes.

Two bids came in. Mad Anthony’s offered $3.9 million, with $100,000 in earnest money, to continue essentially as is, except as the owner. Lawrence B. Stone Properties offered $3.6 million, with $200,000 down, to develop a mixed-use property there, including retail and residential property and the possibility of Anthony’s continuing in the same spot.

Both were substantially above the appraised value; the more ambitious Stone proposal lacked a lot of details, but it also held out the possibility – though vague and unsupported – of increasing tax revenues, adding hundreds of jobs and bringing a dramatic new piece to the downtown core that might be worth at least weighing against the difference in price.

The city issued a news release Sept. 25 announcing that Anthony’s was the apparent bid winner, which took council members by surprise. The City Council’s research analyst then produced, in a single day, a document that displays what public decision-making is supposed to look like – a detailed, factual, six-page scoring of criteria, which included a long list of questions about the bidders and their plans that the mayor’s sketchy, begrudging, after-the-press-release- already-went-out sheet doesn’t even ask, let alone answer.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the mayor’s analysis of the bids was tailored precisely to fit the request for proposals that the city issued. The RFP established six criteria for making a decision, and by law the decision must be made based on those criteria. None of them, she said, had anything to do with future tax revenues or long-term employment or the other kinds of possibilities that surround the Stone proposal.

“It’s a pretty simple analysis,” she said. “These are pretty simple criteria. Price is price.”

Within the confines of the RFP process, that’s valid. But perhaps larger questions should be entertained and considered, even if it requires another RFP. This may be one of those crazy times when speed, decisiveness – action! – might be better tempered by thought.

City Councilman Steve Salvatori thinks the mayor made the right call on the bids, though the communication with the council and the public was “less than perfect.” The council has acted to correct some of the procedural problems for future sales, he said. And, ultimately, the bottom line is the bottom line: The highest bidder wins the bid.

When you’re selling something, “that’s almost always the right thing to do,” he said.

True enough. There are certainly problems with the Stone proposal. It makes grandiose assumptions about employment, about tax revenues, about the eventual success of its vision. Stone has a history with the city, through the Playfair property, and that relationship – as well as Stone’s frequent financial support for Democratic candidates – ripples under the surface of this subject, stoking whispers and suggestions and suspicions.

All of which argues for more, not less, discussion and disclosure. More detail and daylight. More, you know, openness and accountability. Because that $300,000 won’t be around for long. The land will be gone forever.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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