We are heartened by the roster of the new economic development working group for the campus site. That’s because it includes representation from the F.C. Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Planning Commission in addition to the City Council and School Board.
It improves the chances that well-grounded economic potentials for the site are more likely to be investigated, with less “noise” coming from a lot of the usual political and neighborhood pressures and special interests to underplay the economic development role in the construction of a new high school.
Simply stated, the voters who will be asked to approve a bond referendum for a new high school this November need to have confidence in the transparency of a process to mull and invite the best offer to offset the taxpayer cost of the new school. Without being convinced that the best plan for economic development, providing the highest financial yield, voters would be rightly skeptical and would potentially vote against the bond referendum. We could hardly blame them.
So there is little room for foot-dragging and ruffled feathers smoothing in this process. With the EDA and Planners involved, this is less likely to happen, despite pressures to the contrary. This needs to be a hardball exercise, reaching out to whomever may be willing to push economic development at the site to the limit, and also to be attentive to what the best in the business have to say about any inherent limits to economic development there.
If the leaders of the development community wind up telling the City that it should drop its illusions about attracting a major firm to occupy office space, for example, then that advice needs to be heeded. On the other hand, if the best and highest-yielding uses need to involve partnering with neighbors to the site, then that, too, needs to be embraced. The same with the notion that development might be most ideal on parts of the campus currently used for athletic fields. Sports can be played elsewhere for a few years if that’s what’s needed.
Stakeholders, instead of howling that their special interests might not be folded into the plan, need to wise up to the very touchy sentiments of voters who will be asked to approve numbers at the upper end of a spectrum approaching $100 million. Asking for that kind of money must include a demonstration of frugality and focus on the quality educational objectives of a new school.
According to News-Press sources, the City could have had a new school on that site for $40 million but an earlier competitive bid behind-closed-doors for development of the project was rejected.
Now, taxpayers will be asked to commit their dollars to a price tag that might be twice as high, or greater. The only way to bring that cost down now is with aggressive, dense economic development.