An exciting day in city government

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 21, 2002

Friday was an interesting day.

On Thursday, we had received notification that the Suffolk City Council was going to have a called meeting concerning the Constant’s Wharf hotel project. We had been hearing rumors for weeks that there had been a lot of activity surrounding securing financing for the project so we fully expected that council was going to meet for a few minutes and announce the project was a go and revel in the success of this long-running controversial venture.

Allison Williams, our reporter who covers boring city government stuff, was on vacation, and with everybody else in the news department working evenings it was left to me to go cover the council meeting, set for 10:30 a.m. It was almost as an afterthought that I went to the Industrial Development Authority meeting that was set for 9 a.m. I had always assumed this group was merely a puppet of city council and that they were set to agree on the financing deal arranged by Stormont Hospitality Group, LLC with TowneBank of Portsmouth.

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When I got to the IDA meeting room on the second floor of the Wachovia Bank there was a large crowd on hand – at least larger than the few other IDA meetings I’ve attended. There were lots of suits from out of town, there to guide our hayseed IDA members through the intricacies of the complex deal that had been set up.

The meeting immediately went into executive session – as if national security was at stake – and Harold Nedd, the talented reporter for The Virginian-Pilot who covers boring city government stuff for them, and I were ushered to a nearby room to wait while the deal was discussed. It’s no business of ours, after all, or yours, how our local government proposes to spend 13 or 14 million dollars of our tax dollars.

We were eventually joined by Pilot photographer John Sheally who, it turns out, chewed some of the same journalistic ground as I in Hopewell and Petersburg and we had a good time jawing over the idiosyncrasies of that area and the newspeople we worked with there.

Elizabeth McCoury finally appeared to tell us it was safe for us to come back and hear what was being discussed. I was flabbergasted to find that all was not well, that some members of the IDA didn’t think a whole lot of the deal that had been cooked up with TowneBank and essentially nixed the project, voting to defer a decision indefinitely.

That was pretty cool, I thought, at least from a news standpoint, and I became curious to find out what was going to happen at the city council meeting in about half an hour.

Council, too, immediately went into executive session. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that room as they tried to figure out how to save face, probably hoping that if they stayed back there long enough drinking coffee and eating doughnuts we’d all eventually get tired and leave. After about 40 minutes someone peeked his head out to see if we were all still there and when they saw us I guess they figured we weren’t going to leave and they came out.

The best they could come up with was to go on with the show they had planned and we heard Asst. City Manager Steve Herbert give an overview of the project – where it’s been, where it’s going and how it got there. After his presentation, Council voted to approve the proposed amendments to their

cooperation agreement with the IDA to build the project – which as best as I could tell, as unfamiliar with high finance as I am, basically amounted to the city assuming about all of the risk.

City officials and Mr. Stormont brushed off the IDA’s balking at the project, saying that they simply didn’t understand and after they had some time for it to sink in, all would be well.

Personally, I hope the project proceeds. Old Suffolk, while certainly on the rise, needs something to really spark development. Northern Suffolk will grow exponentially without any help so efforts such as these should be focused on the areas that need help. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be skeptical. Those gentlemen on the IDA who voted against the project obviously saw something in the deal that they really didn’t like and I think we would be wise to tread carefully. They’re not stupid. To suggest that they don’t understand what was put before them seems kind of insulting. I tend to believe they understand the deal only too well and it’s obviously not what they signed on for.

The IDA’s next meeting is set for Nov. 6, but officials said there will likely be another called meeting before then. Why the rush? What difference will it make if we wait for a year, maybe two? If it’s a good project, the financing will come. If not, then what have we lost?

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald.