January 2007 Highlights

I may have planned to spend more time this month working on stormwater, streets, and sidewalks, but the pace of events dictated otherwise.  January was Baseball Season in Winston-Salem.

Judging by the hundreds of calls and emails I received on the topic, baseball was on many of your minds as well.  I apologize for having been slower to return your messages than usual this month, but I was swamped by the volume of incoming contacts on the stadium debate.  For those who did not have a chance to watch the lengthy discussions before the Council, here's my analysis of what we did and why.

New Winston-Salem baseball stadium project:     After months of lively and constructive public debate, the Winston-Salem City Council on January 16 unanimously approved city participation in the new baseball stadium project.   During the course of that debate, I received as many as 500 to 600 comments (calls and emails) regarding the proposal.  Most supporters of the project emphasized its potential to boost the revitalization of our city center and downtown area.  Most opponents objected to taxpayer subsidization of a development project which they believed should be entirely paid for by its private developer.

     From the start of city discussions of this project, I emphasized that I would not support construction of a new stadium at a net cost to the taxpayers.  If the project did not pay for itself through new revenues, I would vote no.  Others on the council expressed similar concerns.  As a result, the proposal went through an extended negotiation process between city officials and the private developers before a draft proposal emerged for full public debate.  After the proposal reached public debate, it was further strengthened based on comments and questions raised by the public and in the media.

     The project proposal which was finally approved is in fact based on a financing plan under which guaranteed new revenues from the project more than cover its total costs.  The authorizing resolution approved by the council is based on that plan, under which there is no net taxpayer subsidy of the stadium's construction or operation.  The city's share of the construction costs is entirely covered by net new property taxes generated from the stadium project, and a surcharge on ticket sales to games at the stadium.  In the event ticket sales fall short of projections, the developer guarantees payment of the shortfall in ticket revenues to the city.  That guarantee is backed by the assets of the development corporation (including the baseball team franchise itself) and by a required bank letter of credit.  The contract will bar the team franchise from being sold or moved without the city's consent.  As a result of these secured guarantees, the stadium project will not result in a tax increase, and will not take tax revenues from other services or programs.

     I understand that stadium deals have a bad reputation, frequently deserved.  That's because too many cities allow themselves to be taken in by pie-in-the-sky predictions about future benefits, and sign off on deals that risk leaving them holding the financial bag at substantial taxpayer expense.  However, the fact that such projects can be ill-considered and based on unjustifiably rosy expectations does not mean that they have to be done that way. 

     My approach to evaluating this proposal was fiscally conservative.  Even if the anticipated broader economic benefits do not materialize, or are smaller than projected, the taxpayers are still protected.  Again, the securely guaranteed new revenues from the project itself will more than cover the city's investment in the facility.

     Given that the project's financial plan is crafted so that it pays for itself, I was able to evaluate the proposal on its other merits.  Will it be good for the city?  I concluded that the answer to that question was "yes".  It will create a modern public recreational amenity—a high-quality small baseball stadium—in a good location for the city's economy and neighborhoods to benefit.  The economy and tax base of the city as a whole should get a boost from this new downtown stadium.

     Thanks to everyone who called or wrote with your thoughts on the issue.  I hope that I've been able to respond to your questions.

Romara Road rezoning approved:     Even during the midst of "baseball season", other city business continued, including the review of planning and zoning requests.  One item of likely interest in the Southwest Ward this month involved a rezoning request on Romara Road off of Jonestown Road.  This project was eventually approved, after extended and detailed examination of its stormwater and traffic impacts.  The rezoning request itself covered only about 10 acres of land, but it was located between a larger development which had been approved by the City Council last year, and a planned new single-family subdivision which had previously received final approval from the Planning Board.  The primary question in the case was this:  Are we doing all that we can to address the cumulative stormwater and traffic impacts of development in this area?

     We received input from directly adjacent landowners, and the nearby Westbrook Neighborhood Association, and added new project conditions regarding stormwater and traffic, negotiated between the developers, Planning staff, and city Transportation staff.  I ultimately concluded that we had the best handle on impacts that the law would allow us to require, and recommended approval of the final package.

Among the useful terms and conditions were these:

  • The site plan maintains an undisturbed buffer along its internal stream (an unnamed tributary to Silas Creek).
  • The adjacent subdivision includes undisturbed forested areas around its borders, common area open spaces within the subdivision, and dedicated pedestrian accesses to both those common areas and the dedicated greenway right-of-way along Silas Creek.
  • The required stormwater management plan for the project will include an evaluation of possible innovative stormwater management techniques, which may be required if the study shows that they are appropriate.
  • Traffic impact mitigation requirements will include accelerated installation of a traffic signal at Romara and Jonestown, and developer-financed improvements to Romara Road.

     These are the types of issues that we increasingly need to consider in evaluating new development proposals in our rapidly growing city.

New city vehicle emission controls:     Here's a quick update on implementation of the new city policy (approved last year) requiring purchase of cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles.  I reviewed three sets of recommended vehicle purchases which came before the Council in January, for compliance with the new policy.  First, the recommended new pickup purchases met the criteria as clean and fuel-efficient options within that category.  Second, the new motor grader proposed to be purchased was the cleanest model available on the market.  Both of these proposed purchases were approved. 

     Finally, a proposed purchase of new full-sized sedans was pulled from the Council agenda for re-evaluation, to see whether economy sedans could be appropriately substituted.  In sum, I'm pleased to report that city management staff are taking the new policy seriously and doing their best to implement it well.  We should continue to save tax dollars and reduce air pollution as a result.

With that item, I'll wrap up my report for the month.  As always, please feel welcome to contact me with your questions or suggestions at danbesse@danbesse.org or 722-1674.  Thanks.