Visions of the past in downtown plan

Published 10:11 pm Monday, June 25, 2018

To the editor:

After reading about and reviewing the proposed library and city-center redevelopment plan for Suffolk as proposed by our city leaders and their development planners, I have eerie visions of the past.

As a past Senior Federal Urban Planner (eight years at the State Director level-CPD), and presently a senior planner and program/project manager, I am a bit skeptical. I am presently leading both a large new $240 million infrastructure project (a new air-carrier international airport on the Canadian border), and a future assignment as the lead master planner for a large $350-million-plus redevelopment project for a city center in a city just a little smaller than Suffolk, it seems that our city team may finally be on the right track. But they have drug us through this type of thing before at great cost and expectation, only to suffer catastrophic failure.

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I have been in Suffolk since 1992, and I have seen such grandiose projects as this implode due to poor planning, inattention to realistic strategies, and most importantly undefined commitments of direct support with no funding stream to make them a reality.

The last great example that jumps to mind was the redevelopment of the old Planters Peanut plant area in the East Washington Street corridor. We put millions of city funds at risk and borrowed millions under the HUD Section 108 loan program (a program I ran for eight years) only to see it all lost. This failed project is still being paid off by Suffolk from our HUD CDBG Entitlement Allocation.

As a result, the funds under CDBG, which Suffolk gets from HUD for low to moderate income citizens of our fine city, are not available and were constructively lost due to poor planning and overestimate of claims that were just not even realistic. I wrote of this fiasco many times in the past when I wrote the Tuesday column for the Suffolk News-Herald, and those columns do seem to echo loudly in this proposal.

So here we go again, with another new and grand plan for redevelopment of downtown Suffolk. The real question to pose to our leaders who devised this plan is: Have you learned your lesson in the past uninformed urban-planning forays or are we doomed to another misstep, both in cost and expectations?

I give it about a 50/50 chance, and it might even realistically tip once again towards failure, if we do not have the right people make the right decisions. Do we, and who are they?

All Suffolk tax-payers should ask these questions before we run off another cliff, like the lemmings we seem to be, from the outcomes of our past practice projects, which have cost us greatly. If this project and proposal is just political pander and puff, we need to stop now. If it is realistic, who leads and the people have a right to know how it will be funded, planned and succeed.

Will there only be more millions of dollars put at risk, to allow the elite in our community to grandstand and crow about all they do for us, or will they do it right this time?

Will we allow them to waste the great costs for consultants and staff (probably a large chunk of money) to ponder and propose the unworkable? Time will tell once again, and our track record in Suffolk has been very poor, even under the most generous terms.

It is time to get the real professionals involved to vet what seems like a good idea on paper, but may just have absolutely no realistic chance to succeed. We need to stop the bleeding of expensive fairy tales and focus on what can be done to improve our community, rather than attempting to over-build just for political bragging rights for our council members and senior city staff.

Once again we go into the breach (as the great speaker claimed). Will we once again pay for nothing, or have we learned how it really is to be done? Time will tell.

Roger A. Leonard