[Note: After posting this article, we became aware of some corrections and clarifications that needed to be made. The post below appears in its original form, but please see the subsequent post (of September 17th) for the changes.]
Upon the recommendation of the Quality Communities Committee (QCC), and with former Councilor Capraro casting the lone dissenting vote, the City last year hired Bergmann Associates to run its Lakefront and Downtown planning process. In the opinion of NoStringsGeneva, Mayor Cass had packed the QCC with members favoring residential development (what we refer to in this post as simply residential)on the Lakefront. Bergmann went so far as to include a fast-track development option in their presentation when they tried out for the job. It looked to us like the City would get the same old results from the same old cast of characters.
However, with the change in leadership at the top, a new Mayor and a new City Manager, and some new blood on Council, we thought a new kind of government-- more open to the views of ordinary citizens, and more committed to community-based process-- was in the works. We turned cautiously optimistic about the results. The August 27th ‘unveiling’ of the Bergmann plan, however, has us worried that those hopes might be dashed.
Here’s why. Early on in the year-long process, residential on the lakefront was ruled out at every turn. However, when the Bergmann plan (you can read the presentation documents here) presented a ‘preferred’ alternative development plan that has as its centerpiece a lakefront residential component, people were shocked.
To be absolutely clear, residential does not, in fact, appear on Bergmann’s long list of “consistent themes,” they drafted after a complex public participation process. Consistent themes are development components which continually bubbled up from the community in the process—about which there had been widespread, sustained agreement. Nor does residential appear in either of two plans they sketched out following from the consistent themes list, referred to as “Alternative One” and “Alternative Two”.
Then, mysteriously-- like hands coming back out of the ground in a Stephen King story-- residential reappears in Bergmann’s featured proposal— in their own alternative to the alternatives: A massive structure, a multi-story building with a footprint three times the size of the existing Ramada Hotel, vaguely identified as “Visitor Center-retail-residential” in the talk, was to feature a residential component.
The real source of horror in Stephen King is not the initial crisis, but the set back experienced when a crisis thought to be under control returns—just when people start to relax. The horror is the loss of control.
While many of the public sessions coordinated by Bergmann included discussion of a variety of public structures on the lakefront, with ideas ranging from a museum to the long envisioned ‘interpretive center’, a structure that included residential was never presented for public comment.
More trouble surfaced later that same night when Bergmann explained they had inserted residential into their draft because a “feasibility study” had indicated residential would be required to finance a visitors’ center and to bring in property tax revenue to the City. Say what?
Councilor Augustine’s hand shot up: “What feasibility study?” she asked. The Bergmann representative answered, in effect, “Well, there’s this feasibility study that we’ve seen, that you haven’t, that is not included in our report, and that will not be released to Council until next month, that suggests we need residential in our plan.” He called it the “Fairweather Study.”
Fairweather? Time to back up. The ‘Fairweather study’ was another study that had been outsourced to a consultant by the previous Council. It had been recommended by the former City Manager to ascertain the feasibility of a lakefront wine tasting venue, first proposed by Dr. Harvey Reissig. Capraro, who acknowledged he was a personal friend of Reissig and supportive of the idea of a wine center in Geneva, told the public there was no need to spend money on a study to find out what everyone already knew-- that the idea was not economically viable. Once again, he was the lone vote against it.
Lo and behold, Fairweather, the consultant eventually hired by the City, quickly determined that the wine tasting visitors’ center was not economically viable. However, instead of stopping there, the Fairweather study group, without going back to Council with a request for another sort of study, took it upon themselves to conduct another study of their own design.
The committee took government into their own hands, pushed on with what, in our opinion was an unauthorized study, since Council never approved it. As reported at a later City council meeting, money allocated for the original wine study all went to Fairweather even after the scope of the study had changed. The whole thing morphed into the Geneva Wine and Visitors’ Center Planning Study, known as the Fairweather Study.
According to Fairweather’s calculations, a viable visitors’ center would have to include a much broader scope than wine and, even then, it require massive subsidies by the City of Geneva: in other words, subsidies from already burdened Geneva property tax payers.
More specifically, Fairweather says Geneva City property tax payers would have to shell out $100,000 per year to keep a visitors’ center up and running—that’s to subsidize operating expenses after the building was constructed.
Here’s exactly what the Fairweather Study says about subsidies: “Overall the analysis strongly indicates that it would be very difficult to establish a self-sustaining wine and visitors’ center in Geneva and that any center created is likely to require an annual operating subsidy.” Please note: The Fairweather Study does not specify-- or even mention-- subsidies from City of Geneva property tax payers. Instead, it talks about outside fundraising, from grants and gifts, etc.
It appears, then, Bergmann people took it upon themselves to introduce tax payer subsidies of the visitors’center concept. That then provided their link to the inserting residential into their plan after it had been ruled out.
Is it too conspiratorial or fact-based to question how a planning process overseen by a QCC group biased in favor of a residential component to Lakefront plans ended up with the re-introduction of residential by Bergmann after it had been ruled out in the planning process, and when it was not even mentioned in the Fairweather study that had been used to justify its inclusion?
Embedded within the Fairweather study is yet another problematic issue: the Visitors’ Center itself. The Fairweather Study’s opening sentence declares, “The purpose of this planning study is to move the Finger Lakes Visitors’ Center from conceptual feasibility to operational feasibility.” There is a pre-history to the concept of a visitors’ center, going back to the 1990’s when Geneva prevailed over Canandaigua in a competition to determine where the state ought to site a “Finger Lakes interpretive center.” Funding from that competition never appeared and the project disappeared.
Fast forward to the spring of 2008. That’s when New York State Senator Mike Nozzolio announced a series of earmarks for the City of Geneva. Among those member items in this year’s state budget was a visitors’ center on the lakefront. Nozzolio’s announcement came right in the middle of the QCC/Bergmann/ community-based planning process. We worried back then about the effect it would have on the planning process (see our previous post on that).
Fast forward again to the Fairweather Study. It makes frequent reference to the Nozzolio pork, including the following declaration about funding for a Visitors’ Center:
“Funding provided by Senator Nozzolio has placed this opportunity within reach. In order to meet this opportunity fully, it is essential that the Center achieve financial sustainability so that it can be property promoted, maintained and improved over the years. As the financial analysis in this report indicates, this will not be easy. Indeed, our projections indicate the need for an annual operating subsidy for multiple years.”
If we have our fact correct, our point of view is that there was definitely a link between the Fairweather Study and the Nozzolio money, and therefore, a link between the Bergmann Study and the Nozzolio money. The Fairweather study was essentially over when the Nozzolio money changed its emphasis from wine tasting venue to visitor’s center. It was also just about the time Bergmann wrote a visitors center into to their draft.
In our view, New York State taxpayers’ subsidy of the City of Geneva, secured by the maneuvering of Nozzolio in Albany, trumped what had been a fairly well functioning, community-based planning process.
There are other problems with the use of a Geneva City property tax revenue from the residential component to subsidize a Visitors’ Center, even if, like Augustine, you thought the plan might be not such a bad idea, maybe even a good idea, if the “Sophie’s Choice” for the City were: either a residential component to Lakefront development or no Lakefront development at all.
First, Fairweather says the Visitors Center should not compete with the Canandaigua’s New York Wine and Culinary Center:
In addition, the analysis also strongly suggests that any such center avoid
operations and/or programs that would place the Geneva center in direct competition with the offerings of the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua.
Then, Bergmann locates the Visitors’ Center on the lakefront and calls for Geneva City property tax payers to subsidize it.
On those points, Fairweather and Bergmann are in direct conflict with Nozzolio’s earmark. When Nozzolio first announced the earmark last spring, as reported on his website and in the Finger Lakes Times, he had the visitors center on the lakefront. Maybe that’s why Bergman put it there. But then he changed its location, placing it in downtown Geneva.
Nozzolio’s website, today, September 9, 2008, says this about the visitors center:
“$5 million – New Finger Lakes Visitor Center in Downtown Geneva
A new Finger Lakes Visitor Center located in downtown Geneva will be a signature building for the Finger Lakes region that will serve as a destination for tourists and the Finger Lakes region. The Center will be interactive for visitors and will place an emphasis on the natural beauty of our area as well as the wineries in the region. The Geneva Chamber of Commerce will relocate to the new facility and will continue their work to promote tourism in the region. The Visitor Center will be state-of-the-art and will serve as a destination for all those seeking information on the many attractions of the Finger Lakes region. The Finger Lakes Visitor Center will be modeled after the very successful New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, which highlights the food and wines produced in New York State.”
Note how this leads to the second twist, the earmark calls for a mimicking of the center in Canandaigua while Fairweather says it should not be in competition with it to be viable.
The day after Bergmann’s presentation, in the local paper’s coverage of the meeting, Rob Gladden from the Chamber of Commerce was quoted as saying the Bergmann plan was consistent with one that the Chamber had endorsed, as did members of the Geneva Business Improvement District, and, also, a vaguely organized group calling itself “Geneva Growth.” Turns out Geneva Growth happens to be headed by the unsuccessful Mayoral candidate Phil Beckley, who launched his failed campaign with a call for condos on the lakefront (and who joined the committee pushing the unfeasible wine tasting room).
It was also Beckley who said that the report from Phillip Morris (see our post about his visit to Geneva last Easter) would tie all of this together. The report, funded with $10,000 from the Geneva IDA, has never been released, even though Beckley said some months ago its release was imminent. Could it be that Morris did not fall in line with these other studies, and that his report will never be released to the public?
It looks like all of King’s men—not the king’s men Robert Penn Warren had in mind, but of Stephen King-- are hard at work against community-based democracy in Geneva. They are causing quite a stir. With all the optimism about change, this is where the rubber hits the road. Will the Mayor, Council, and the City Manager stand up to outside interests and take control of the planning process, and return it to the people where it belongs?