By Jim Gaines
The total turnover of the Bowling Green City Commission in Tuesday’s election adds new players to the debate over LifeSkills’ planned move downtown.
But it might also provide a chance for all parties to step back, reassess their positions and start afresh.
“What I would like to see is to have all involved parties come to the table and work this out,” Mayor-elect Elaine Walker said.
LifeSkills, the city of Bowling Green, the Downtown Redevelopment Authority and the Kentucky Heritage Council should meet to find an acceptable solution to the impasse, rather than “fight to the death, one way or the other,” she said.
“I think those are the people that need to get together. We are not here to oppose one another. We need to work together. I think that people need to be willing to give a little bit. And I have not seen that. I have seen intransigence.”
Continued butting of heads serves neither the public interest nor LifeSkills’ clients, she said.
Current commissioners agreed June 29 to buy land on the 500 block between Chestnut and State streets to help the social-service agency build a 40,000-square-foot consolidated headquarters. LifeSkills already owns two properties on the block, and asked the city to buy eight more. Four of those have now been bought, according to Commissioner Joe Denning.
But the project has run into one snag after another:
- Questions about the validity of LifeSkills’ lease to another city property, which it offered in trade.
- A looming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether cities can use eminent domain to buy property for private redevelopment projects.
- Complaints from the DRA that it was being excluded from the very sort of projects it was formed to oversee.
- Suggestions that LifeSkills should choose another block, leaving its selected site – next to the centerpiece of redevelopment efforts – for a project that will attract tourists.
- LifeSkills’ allegation that opponents of the project were only acting out of prejudice against the mentally ill, and might be sued.
- And most recently, in October, word from the Kentucky Heritage Council that one building to be demolished for the LifeSkills project, at 538 State St., needs to be reviewed for historic significance.
“The biggest fear that I have is the city’s recent use of eminent domain,” Walker said. “I have serious concerns about taking private property from an individual and turning it over to another private individual.”
She hopes that the city will hold off on buying more property for the project until the Supreme Court issues a decision.
“I believe that this is an improper use of eminent domain, and I am hopeful that the city commission does not push forward on this,” Walker said.
Incoming commissioners generally echoed Walker, welcoming a broad discussion but asking for a hiatus until that can be arranged.
Brian “Slim” Nash used to work for LifeSkills and wants to see the organization stay downtown – but not on its selected site.
“I do not support – and I’ve said this all along – their locating on the particular piece of property that’s being discussed at this time,” Nash said. “If we can all compromise just a little bit, I think that everybody can walk away from this situation happy.”
The agency should look for another site nearby, but not on the “most prominent piece of property downtown.”
“I truly believe that this is achievable, but if everybody continues to just dig their heels in, nobody’s going to end up a winner,” he said.
His discussions with Dale Bond, president and CEO of LifeSkills, have thus far been “cordial and friendly,” and he would like things to remain on that level.
“I have asked everybody within the LifeSkills organization that I know, not to continue to play this ‘thinly veiled discrimination’ card,” Nash said.
Although Nash admits that discrimination against the mentally ill, disabled and substance-abusers exists, he doesn’t think that has anything to do with various officials’ opposition to LifeSkills’ chosen site.
“It has to do with premier property in a downtown redevelopment project,” Nash said. “It concerns me and it hurts me when people try to paint (other) people into corners by saying that if you’re against them, then you’re discriminating.”
Mark Alcott said that he stands by his campaign statements about LifeSkills: That he wants to see LifeSkills in a downtown headquarters, but not on the block adjacent to Circus Square. He would rather place it a block away, on the other side of Chestnut Street, as suggested by the DRA.
Delane Simpson said that the city should pause in land buying until all the legal facts are known about the land deal, eminent domain and state requirements.
Brian Strow said that he opposes the potential use of eminent domain for promoting private redevelopment projects.
“I do hope that the city has put the purchase of land for LifeSkills on hold,” he said. “If they haven’t, then they need to.”
LifeSkills attorney David Broderick said that he could speak on behalf of the organization in “wholeheartedly” welcoming a roundtable discussion with concerned parties.
“If they want to sit down and talk, that’s a positive sign, and we would welcome the opportunity,” he said.
LifeSkills does not have a problem with waiting until January for resolution, Broderick said.
“I think at this point in time, we have a contract with the city but we’re willing to talk to anybody,” he said. “I think it is a positive statement of the new administration that they want to talk to us, and we welcome the opportunity. Unfortunately, the only dialog that we’ve had has been from (outgoing City Commissioner Jim Bullington), and that has not been very positive.”
Bond backed up Broderick’s statement.
“We’ve had no meetings with the new or the current city administration, and we’ve not had a board meeting,” Bond said. “So officially there’s nothing to say. But I think I would reinforce what David had to say: That we are assured that there will be discussion with both administrations within some reasonable time frame.
“I’m comfortable that we’ll all work together, and things will work out in some reasonable win-win fashion.”
An Oct. 12 letter from the Kentucky Heritage Council says that the city may have violated federal historic preservation regulations by not having the building studied. That could be considered an attempt to circumvent requirements, possibly jeopardizing future funding, according to David Morgan, the council’s executive director.
City staff, who have been working on the land purchases, asked for a special commission meeting this Tuesday to publicly explain their position. The backup documents for that meeting indicate that city staff still disagree with the state’s judgment, and have submitted the respective positions to the federal Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.
According to the meeting announcement and agenda, commissioners will take no formal action at the meeting.
“The city staff is supposed to present all the facts to us about what they’ve found out,” Bullington said. “I would assume that LifeSkills will present any information they want to, the DRA will present anything they want to. It’s just purely a fact-finding meeting.
“In my opinion, ignoring the procedure required for historic properties has given us a black eye with the state. It would really seem that since we did know it was a historic building, we should not have taken the attitude, ‘We don’t have to ask you.’ Just because you don’t have to doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
And, it appears, the city did have to ask the state historic preservation agency after all, he said.
Bullington said that if the building does require historic preservation review, that process will probably take three months.
“I don’t think all of the questions can be answered before the end of the year,” he said.
Several commissioners have said individually that they would like city staff to stop property acquisition for LifeSkills until the legal questions are ironed out. But that doesn’t carry the force of an official instruction, Denning said.
“My concern is that we as a city commission have not, in session, directed the staff and the city manager to stop buying property,” he said.
But a formal order to halt such purchases may come soon after Tuesday’s meeting, Denning said.
The outgoing commission, in his opinion, has a responsibility to its successor not to undertake any major moves at the last minute.
Commissioner Alan Palmer said the current commission, for its remaining two months in office, is for now locked into supporting the LifeSkills project as approved – at least officially.
“We’re pretty much bound by this contract with LifeSkills to proceed with purchasing the properties in that block,” he said. “I guess we could choose to reverse ourselves on that, but we could face potential litigation from LifeSkills if we step back from that contract.”
Between the historic preservation dispute and the upcoming Supreme Court case, it makes sense to at least pause in land-buying, Palmer said, “but by doing that, what we’re saying basically is, we’ll just turn it over to the new city commission.”
Commissioner Dan Hall said he doesn’t object to adhering to the current deal.
“I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see what LifeSkills wants to do,” he said. “I supported it and I still support it, and if they want to move ahead on it before the end of the year, then that’s what I’ll support.”
Walker said that she admires the outgoing commissioners who want to halt the project until their successors take office.
“They have shown their integrity by that statement,” she said.
One of LifeSkills’ arguments for putting its headquarters on that particular block was the fact that it already owns two of the 10 properties there. But perhaps not for long.
Gary West, executive director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that he has talked with Bond and former LifeSkills board chairman Fred Keith about the visitors bureau’s interest in buying the 1875 Underwood-Jones house at 506 State St. LifeSkills now operates a Child Crisis Stabilization center in the building.
The bureau tried to do that in 2001, but LifeSkills asked for the money on a short timetable and the visitors bureau couldn’t line up private backers rapidly enough, West said.
“I’ve always viewed the Dr. Jones house as a potential tourist attraction, for a Shake Rag museum, for New Era (Planning Association) offices, or a place carriage rides could begin or end,” he said. “We treat downtown as a tourist attraction.”
LifeSkills wanted $295,000 for the house in 2001, West said, and if given another opportunity, “we would certainly try” to come up with the money.
Bond said that while LifeSkills has started discussing a sale with West, no decisions have been made.
Bowling Green Daily News: www.bgdailynews.com