GEORGE KENNEDY: Here's hoping the third TIF is a charm

Thursday, February 24, 2011 | 1:51 p.m. CST

The TIF, I’ve tentatively concluded, is the least larcenous of the multiple methods devised by our rulers to take money from the pockets of us taxpayers and place it in the purses of developers.

Indeed, judging from the comments of promoters and officials at Monday’s meeting of the Columbia City Council, the latest TIF project promises to be the savior of downtown.

This project, as you know, is the conversion of what is now the Regency Hotel on Broadway into a sleek new “boutique hotel.” The TIF (which is short for tax-increment financing) is to provide $3.2 million of the estimated $17.5 million cost of the project by allowing the developer to retain for a period of 23 years the revenue that would otherwise be paid to local governments and the public schools in the form of taxes on the increased value of the property.

It’s that diversion of prospective revenue that presumably wouldn’t have otherwise existed that makes a TIF less objectionable than the transportation development districts that now encircle the city. There, shoppers pay immediately a higher sales tax that the developers use to cover the cost of the infrastructure allowing those shoppers access to their Walmarts and such. A similar district, with a different label but its own extra sales tax, is in the works for downtown.

Usually, you expect the promoters trying to get their hands in our pockets to be bubbling with enthusiasm while the professionals we hire to protect us take a cooler, more skeptical tone.

Monday night, by contrast, the lawyer for the developer ran through his PowerPoint slides in a monotone. It was Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine who introduced the terms that set the tone. This will be, he assured the council and the citizenry, a “catalytic project” that will have a “synergistic effect” on the city center. Council members seemed euphoric and unanimously approved.

Later in the meeting, under the heading New Business, we learned that the first thing to be synergistically catalyzed will be another parking garage, this one to be constructed on Short Street at our expense to serve the occupants of the 113 rooms in the new hotel as well as other drivers lured to the area by the festivals, employment opportunities and other attractions we can anticipate.

I hope the enthusiasts are right this time.

Someone mentioned in passing Monday that this is actually the third TIF project the council has approved. Let’s review:

The first was the Tenth and Locust project, envisioned as a mixed-use development that would attract adult residents downtown and serve them with a smallish supermarket. Didn’t happen. Instead, we’ve seen another block of student apartments and are about to see still more. No TIF and no groceries.

The second TIF was to refurbish the Tiger Hotel, turning it also into a boutique hotel. It’s been more than a year now, and so far nothing catalytic or synergistic, unless you count repeated requests for extensions of the agreement. Most recently, you may have read elsewhere, the Tiger’s owners have taken on a Canadian partner with what you could politely call a mixed track record. Maybe the planned beautification of Eighth Street will make this languishing landmark more attractive to outside investors.

I don’t mean to be a naysayer. I’m just an interested and hopeful observer. The main thing I hope is that the Regency project, unlike the gargantuan garage a few blocks to the west, at least pays for itself.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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