Civic Center Slight of Hand

Civic Center Slight of Hand
A Civic Center - with lions!

Well, here we go again.

Someplace, somewhere, perhaps over the rainbow, there’s a land where we can have a full and healthy debate on the merits of civic center investments and the supposed economic wealth and growth that comes from them. But we don’t live in that place. Instead, the arguments fall into conjecture and guesswork.

The last discussion by the Amarillo City Council on May 24th was a good example of this.

There’s so much to talk about, about the strange and amateurish arguments floated in that meeting (I’ll refer you to the recording and transcript, but, really, the new Obi Wan series on Disney+ is MUCH more worth your time - come on - it’s Darth Vader in this prime!). Even still, there is a new development I’d like to address - as much as it pains me to break my self-imposed silence on anything with the City of Amarillo.

First, some background: In November, 2020 voters in Amarillo rejected a $275 million bond that was supposed to pay for Civic Center improvements, a new City Hall (or a relocated one), and a few other things. The details are slightly superfluous. The important thing is about 60% of voters said no to the bond.
Ok. Done.

Except it isn’t. During the city council meeting on May 24th, 2022 the city tried again. This time your elected officials voted to spend $260 million in ‘tax notes’ on the civic center and ancillary things. Unlike the failed 2020 bond, this will not have to go to the voters for their approval

So what’s this going to do to your taxes? Here’s a picture from the meeting about the property tax increase:

Increase of tax rates coming atcha

Zoinks! The tax rate will go from $0.44 to $0.57 in the year 2024. That’s a big jump, especially considering people voted on this kind of thing twice and said no both times.

There are some machinations in how all this works, and we can get into all that in detail, but right now I’m very interested in the disingenuous arguments around the proposal and what someone just did to stop things from going ahead.

First, the arguments. The mayor, during the meeting, stressed several times the city needs to have a ‘solid’ commitment, just like the 2015 council did with the baseball stadium.

Hey! 2015! I was around then. Here’s the difference: the entire community was split about this MPEV business (I don’t think we say MPEV anymore; that seems to have evaporated). So we had a ‘non-binding referendum,’ and it barely squeaked by and passed. The voters gave their consent at building this multi-purpose venue for a certain price - that price, unfortunately, went by the wayside quickly.

Today, there’s no such consent. It’s actually quite the opposite.

During the discussion, Cole Stanley, who serves in Place 1 mentioned how the city was gambling with tax money. The mayor jumped on him about this.

The thing is, he’s exactly right. It is a gamble. The evidence of long-term economic growth based on civic centers is highly questionable and speculative. You can hear it during the discussion: there was quite a bit of conjecture and guessing about the future benefits of spending the money. I’ve heard all this before about the retail space downtown. Take a look at that area when you’re driving by and notice how, after all these years, the spots are still empty (by the way, the city spend a chunk of change on window coverings to obscure the vacancies).

I heard all the conjecture and wishful thinking about the MPEV too: how it would keep ‘millennials’ here in Amarillo. How it would lead to glorious growth downtown. Roads would be paved with silver! It would rain gold-pressed latinum (obviously the Ferengi would come to Amarillo for their galactic conferences). I mean, good grief, I heard it about the Santa Fe depot - and that’s still in the construction plans this time around!

But instead we have a baseball stadium that sits empty most of the time and has extracted, not built, economic wealth from downtown businesses. So predictable.

Today, Alex Fairly, who runs a company in Amarillo, decided to file a lawsuit to stop the city from issuing its tax notes. He’s asking for a temporary injunction to prevent the city from issuing the new debt. Alex is no stick in the mud. I’m not either. I know there are well-meaning people in this community who want growth for the city, opportunity for people, and a way for everyone to create their own path and wealth.

But people here are sometimes myopic and can’t see how we apply our resources to truly make a great community. Instead we try to develop things that benefit a handful of people. To me, Alex’s lawsuit is a cry in the howling wind to say, stop, wait, and focus on what we really need to be doing.

And stop the gambling.