This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
The City of University Place has spent, on average, $42,000 a year on travel to market Town Center over the past five years.
Is that an unreasonable expense for a property owner pitching a $250 million development with the potential to permanently expand the city’s tax base and give it the central town square it’s never had?
No. Had the city not invested the money, critics might rightfully charge that University Place hadn’t done enough to secure the project’s success.
The better question is: Did the right people take the trips to woo retailers, sketch out the shopping center’s look and lobby for federal money?
Specifically, did University Place need to send large delegations of city staff and elected officials to industry conventions and design meetings? Nearby cities have been able to map out their developments by sending a couple of key people – or, in some instances, just their developers.
University Place’s hands-on approach is a likely consequence of Town Center’s unique history, which has been beset by bad timing and vocal opposition almost from the get-go.
City officials leveraged the city’s financial health on the bet that they could lure upscale retail to Bridgeport Way West. It was an ambitious endeavor even before the recession hit, and it has seemed more Herculean with each passing year.
Undoubtedly, that is one reason behind the large entourages. City leaders are personally invested in vindicating their decision and ensuring that the gamble eventually pays off.
Face-to-face meetings have succeeded in one respect. The city secured $8 million in federal grants, in part by spending $32,000 to make several trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby federal officials. That’s a healthy return on investment.
But University Place officials appear to have gradually rethought their approach, whether by choice or fiscal necessity. Most of the $212,000 tab for travel came during the early years of marketing the development.
Lately, as the city has exhausted the list of potential contacts and changed directions on selling the property, it has scaled back travel.
This spring, for the first time in five years, no city official went to a prominent retail real estate gathering in Las Vegas. Instead, the city’s private broker went on his own dime.
Delegating the job to professionals is probably the better – although not always cheaper – course. But while University Place officials might have sent others in their stead, it’s hard to make a case that their travel bill was exorbitant given the stakes.
A $400 New York City hotel room didn’t put the city in a budget bind. The $40 million debt for Town Center did, and city officials would be remiss if they weren’t spending some money to try to work their way out from under that albatross.