Over the past eight years, taxpayers and businesses have sunk $5 million into downtown streets, sidewalks, sewers and street lights - and spent $65,000 on consultants.
Now the City Council wants to use new tax dollars to lure private business downtown. Another study, at a cost of $45,000, is under way to firm up a plan.
But some business owners and residents insist enough money has been spent on the central business district.
“They have gotten their head start,” said Bob Stamsos of Instant Replay Sports on Fourth Street, in what’s commonly called Midtown. “Now I think it’s time to look elsewhere.”
Phil McKay, owner of McKay’s Pub and Eatery on Fourth Street, concurs. “Putting $45,000 into a study in downtown isn’t going to solve downtown’s problems,” McKay said. “And putting $45,000 into a study of Fourth Street won’t solve our problems.”
Defenders of the downtown plan say it’s the only way to save the 16-block district that makes up $93 million of the city’s assessed valuation. That’s 9 percent of the value on the tax rolls.
The big bucks spent on infrastructure in the past - much of it grant money - is a foundation that needs further help to flourish.
“Now that we have the infrastructure in place, where do we go?” said Nancy Sue Wallace, a Coeur d’Alene councilwoman and a co-chair of a new booster group called the Lake City Coalition.
The debate started earlier this month when the council voted to declare a broad swath of Coeur d’Alene “deteriorating and continuing to deteriorate” to establish an urban renewal agency.
The agency will use tax dollars to lure private developers into downtown. Part of the plan includes spending $45,000 on a Virginia-based consultant to tell merchants in downtown how to better attract business.
“I don’t think it’s city government’s responsibility to make sure John Doe’s T-shirt shop is successful,” McKay said. “That’s John Doe’s responsibility.”
City resident Frank Yancovitz, a recent transplant, thinks there are more cost-efficient ways. “They should buy a report that’s already been done and blow the dust off of it,” Yancovitz said.
“And what about the city, county and state planners?” Yancovitz said. “What is it they are paid for?”
Coeur d’Alene shouldn’t be ashamed to get professional help, and the $45,000 “is a cheap date,” said Sandi Bloem, co-chair of the Lake City Association and owner of a downtown jewelry store. Despite the past efforts, she said: “We did not ever get a vision strategy for economic growth. We will be trained how to make other parts of town better”.
Earlier studies, one done by the University of Idaho and one done by a private consultant, have given Coeur d’Alene enviable streets, sidewalks and sewers. Now downtown needs a mix of apartments, condos and office space to strengthen the business district, Bloem said.
There are investors waiting, property available and people eager to move downtown. But investors are frightened by news stories about downtown’s deterioration and by the fact that the investment doesn’t pencil out, Bloem said.
“Nobody can make a return on their money,” Bloem said. “It will take a public-private partnership to make that happen.”
The money for the public part of that partnership comes from a complex and controversial taxation plan.
A special taxing district was created a few weeks ago that covers roughly the southern third of town.
Property owners in this zone will receive two tax bills. The first will tap owners for the value of their property through Jan. 1, 1997 and that money will be distributed to the normal array of government entities - schools, city and county.
The second bill will tax property owners for any increase in value beyond the Jan. 1 value. The schools will get their share and the rest will go into public-private partnerships.
For example, a new public building could be built downtown and the top three or four floors could go to an apartment developer, Bloem said.
This strategy was used in conjunction with the Harpers furniture manufacturing development in Post Falls, city officials say. There the money went to improving Seltice Way and other infrastructure.
That example, and the latest version, rankles the Kootenai County Property Owners. “It’s corporate welfare for Harpers,” Dee Lawless said. “It’s another end run around the taxpayers.”
But more than that, Midtown property owners think it’s time to fix the streets and sewers in other areas and let downtown merchants do their own marketing. The Fourth Street businesses are doing that, forming an association that will start a round of promotional events next month.
“I’m 100 percent for the rebuilding of downtown,” McKay said. “The better downtown does, the better Midtown does.”
Downtown has had it’s turn, however. “We are actually spending money to revitalize an area that’s already revitalized,” McKay said. “Let’s spend it elsewhere. We’re part of the city, too.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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