Is the Fairgrounds Project another circus?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 14, 2004

As city management gets ready to initiate the multi-million dollar redevelopment of the East Washington Street corridor with perhaps one of its most ambitious downtown projects yet, known as the &uot;Fairgrounds,&uot; is it too late to rethink such policies?

With millions of dollars being spent on downtown projects and the city by default in the hotel business and planning to enter the parking business with a new city-run parking garage, is it prudent for it too now jump into the townhouse and apartment development business?

While it is clear that some local downtown developers will literally make a killing on this project, does it really make sense to focus all the efforts for affordable housing in Suffolk on this one and only project?

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After hearing the Fairgrounds Project Manager state that: &uot;this redevelopment effort will not displace those who live within the Fairgrounds area now,&uot; it is clear that such thinking runs directly against logic.

This story, as many in Suffolk, seems to sound good when you hear it in city hall under the big lights at a council meeting, but leaves a bad taste when you have the real facts. This fairy tale starts out with the city encouraging or building homes that run from $85,000 for a single-bedroom apartment, to $285,000 for a three-bedroom single-family home, in this downtown community.

It continues by ignoring the fact that such costs are three to 10 times the cost of the existing housing in the area, and it defies logic how this will not displace the majority of those who live there now.

It has also been stated that the residents in the area now, will somehow be able to buy these new homes.

How is this to be done, when most are struggling to pay for the homes they now occupy, at much lower rents and costs?

It should also be noted that not one study or review has been conducted to determine how this miracle of home ownership will occur, according to the city’s Fairgrounds project manager.

This is not to say that something should not be done in this area, but when the project manager and city manager state that this project is not the &uot;gentrification&uot; of this part of town, they are just not being honest.

They have stated that; they believe that with the city buying down the cost to develop new housing in the area by paying for new community infrastructure, the cost of housing will be kept affordable.

The city manager has even taken this bewildering fantasy one step further and stated that the &uot;Fairgrounds Project is Suffolk’s affordable housing effort.&uot;

What about the rest of the city?

The real questions that should be posed are: Why would anyone believe that the buy-downs described, would not instead become a selling subsidy to fatten profits for the well-connected developers downtown?

Does anyone believe that the city management really expects that the majority of the displaced citizens living in this area will be back to buy the proposed homes?

Also does anyone believe that the city management has the insight to understanding the probable outcomes as stated, or is there yet another twist to the story?

The most likely outcome under the present plan for the area being considered for redevelopment includes the following: The majority of the present residents will be displaced to a scarcity of homes even more distressed than those they are leaving.

Like other areas of downtown that have been &uot;redeveloped,&uot; this area will be &uot;gentrified&uot; with the vast majority of the buyers being new to Suffolk.

And most importantly, the well-connected downtown developers will make a killing by selling these townhouses and homes at artificially high profits, as they snatch back the &uot;public facilities buy-down&uot; that was going to make these home &uot;affordable&uot;.

It is truly distressing to point this scenario out, but to assume that those who build these new homes are so altruistic as to surrender their top profits, just because the city manager says they will, is just a little too much. Given the situation where the City of Suffolk has staked most of its Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from HUD on this unlikely scheme, it is apparent that our community will be once again short-changed.

It is disappointing to see how little business sense our city management has too believe that all of the developers will give up the best market price, just because the city has &uot;bought-down the development costs.&uot;

This project is perhaps the most naive attempt at social tinkering ever.

Or perhaps the advertised effort is misunderstood and the Fairgrounds Project is not about affordable housing at all.

Perhaps it has always been about the expansion and gentrification of the West Side of downtown and a slight of hand to push the undesired and working class out of downtown altogether.

When one takes a look at the probable outcomes of this project being so at odds with the stated purposes, it is clear that the facts are not in the open.

If the members on council who approved this scheme continue to assume that they are getting one thing and find out that they are getting something entirely different, it will be interesting to see where such insight goes.

Or perhaps it is even simpler than all of that and our city management really is this uninformed.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at