Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Story Is Substance

The Laurel City Council did not approve any TIF money for Laurel Commons last week. They only approved the TIF map boundaries. The Gazette left their readers confused, incorrectly writing that the council had approved $14 million for public financing. The Leader got the story correct. Council members must still decide how much, if any, money will be invested in the project.

What do you think?
Would you vote to invest city tax dollar$?
Please add your comments below.

I don’t envy the council’s decision. It's a hot political topic. I’ve already received a surprising number of private emails and comments from neighbors strongly opposed to the TIF. I’ve only had a couple in emails in support. The opposition’s comments have included:

• “We should not pay for more retail. We don’t need it.”

• “Give a TIF to Main Street. They need it more.”
• “They [developers] didn’t say they wanted a TIF last year. Why now?”
• “Invest city taxes for a Burlington Coat Factory? No way!”
• “No more bailouts, bulldoze the mall and build a park.”

I’ve been wondering why so many Laurelites are opposed to the TIF. Why are there such strong emotions?

It might be a reaction to the bad economy and the billions in bailouts for banks and automobile companies. But this can’t be the reason because the anti-TIF drumbeat started long before the economy tanked.

Then, thinking back over the
Laurel Mall story, I began to see that some of this opposition might be the result of how the rebuilding story was told. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories. Sometimes the story matches reality and sometimes it doesn’t.

When I start a round of golf with a shiny new driver, I tell myself a story that I’m going to shoot like Tiger Woods. Usually by the third tee I realize I’ve got the same clumsy game as before. It’s a shiny new driver but it’s the same old, fat, bald guy swinging the damn thing. I think that might be what’s causing the strong opposition to the Laurel Commons TIF. We bought the dream but then reality kicked in at the exact same time the TIF was mentioned. Of course we are feeling disappointed.

You have got to hand it to the Laurel Commons developers. They really pumped up the original story. Expectations were sky high after those early focus groups. We swooned over the dream of a reborn mall with historically accurate mill art, classy fabric swatches, and even an ice skating ring.

These story tellers were slick. Maybe too slick as everyone realized we were only getting common stores and the promise of a couple of restaurants and a new multiplex theatre. After buying the early story about a shining cathedral to retail consumerism, we woke up to realize that we are simply rebuilding a shopping center. It's really not Tiger Woods. It’s just the same old, fat, Wilson, but now he has a new toupee and wants the city to pay him $14 million for playing.

You need to sit in the dark to appreciate the light.
You need to fear the nightmare of hell to accept the dream of heaven.

Why do so many people oppose the TIF for Laurel Commons? Let me offer the following explanation for your consideration.

We sold the dream without first selling the nightmare of a failed mall. I think that we, all of us, city leaders, mall developers and even this bloviating blogger failed to fully explain the true cost of a failed mall.

• The Laurel mall was dead 8 years ago, and this was during the boom.
• What would have happened if the developers passed on the Laurel Commons project?
• How long would the mall have survived in today’s economy? It would have gone from death spiral to flat line. Tax revenues would have dropped to near zero.
• The downside of a dead mall is almost insurmountable for a town our size. We can’t absorb the loss.
• How many of you remember the
dead Rockville mall? It decomposed for over two decades, not only generating zero tax revenue, but its blight was dragging down surrounding property values.

• The city wins when the Laurel Commons succeeds. We get 40% of the success. If we don't stop the bleeding, we will get 100% of almost zero.
• The tax revenue prediction with a derelict Laurel Mall in 2015 makes the city’s revenue split in the same year with a TIF look fantastic in comparison.

I support the TIF. We must save the mall property from its death spiral. The TIF combines a little bit of city money with a lot of other people’s money to keep the mall from certain death. We won’t get a Columbia Mall but we will get a refreshed mall that will be viable for decades. I would have paid a 40% TIF just to get a new movie theatre.

I encourage the Laurel City Council to approve a TIF for the Laurel Commons project.

There is nothing more important than a story to help us learn new things—or to appreciate common things in uncommon ways.

Getting the story right is one of the most difficult skills to master in business, politics, or life. I've learned to appreciate the mastery attained by the early Christian writers. They told their story and it included both heaven and hell. They got their story right and it has served to both define and renew us for over 2000 years.

Merry Christmas,


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Raising Puppies - Lifting Lives

Fidos for Freedom is a Laurel non-profit institution that trains hearing dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs for people who are physically challenged, deaf or hard-of-hearing.

My wife Joanne has volunteered as a puppy raiser for Fidos for the last 12 years. Joanne is better known to Laurel Connection readers as, "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed."

Denise Portis recently finished a wonderful article about Joanne and the puppy raising program for Fidos' newsletter. Denise has given me permission to post her article in it's entirety below. Denise is a fine writer and also a Fidos client. She writes about her hearing loss and her service dog Chloe on her blog Hearing Elmo.

A 2009 Fidos for Freedom calendar makes a great Christmas gift and your tax deductible donation helps this wonderful Oldtown Laurel neighbor. Check their website for details.

I'm extremely proud of Joanne's vocation as a puppy raiser. Now you understand how she had the patience keep me around all of these 25 years. At least I started out as almost house trained.

The Imprint of a Puppy Raiser
By Denise Portis (reprinted with permission)

Joanne with current puppy, Champ

The special assistance dogs at Fidos For Freedom all began their training in the same place – the loving home of a Puppy Raiser. The Puppy Raiser provides a home and basic training for a new puppy, while attending weekly classes at the Fidos Training Center. “The pups ALWAYS remember their Puppy Raiser,” says Pat Jarvis, Director of Training. The Puppy Raiser’s imprint is permanent, having helped to shape the character and development of the assistance dog.

Joanne Wilson is a long-time Puppy Raiser at Fidos For Freedom. She began volunteering after meeting two other volunteers at her place of employment – the USDA in Beltsville. She is currently raising Champ, her eighth puppy for the Assistance Dog Program, and has been raising puppies for the organization for twelve years.

Joanne made sure that her children, then ages six and nine, understood that the puppy did not belong to them. She involved them in teaching and loving the puppy with the goal of then giving it to someone who would need the dog to live a more full and independent life. “The trained dog is a gift that we give … the kids understood that logic,” Joanne shared.

Many people wonder how a Puppy Raiser can “give the puppy back” after investing their lives in one for so long. It’s simple really – these special volunteers love people as much as they do puppies. The reward is in seeing a puppy they raised eventually completing their training with one of the training staff, and then being matched with a client in need of an assistance dog. “I have so much pride in every team of which I have had a part,” explained Joanne. “I have shed more tears of joy over what ‘my dog’ has done for a client, than tears of sadness when they have moved on in their training.”

Erin Saywell, Trainer and Puppy Coordinator, sees the mutual rewards between Puppy Raiser and puppy. Erin works closely with the Puppy Raiser during weekly training sessions, helping the volunteer learn to expose the puppy to various sights, sounds and different populations. The puppies are nurtured and loved in a warm home environment, learning good household manners and how to eliminate on command. “Joanne has been a great role-model for new Puppy Raisers,” said Erin, “letting them know the ‘ups and downs’ of raising an Assistance Dog puppy.”

Joanne has learned that although basic puppy raising is the same, different breeds and traits at times create some unique complications. “We had a Field Labrador puppy that needed to play ball on a daily basis. She worked better if she played first,” admitted Joanne. A Smooth-Coated Collie puppy she raised was very smart, but had trouble with fetching. “The trainers at Fidos are always available, and helped me a lot with that,” confides Joanne. “The trainers have knowledge and experience that they share. They make puppy raising easy for me, and I appreciate them tremendously.”

Joanne and fellow Puppy Raisers are surprised at how much these puppies want to work. When they are training a puppy in the house and do not ask it to do tasks, sometimes the puppy becomes bored and performs tasks on its own. Joanne remembers, “I trained a Labrador named Remi. When she was bored she would bring me things; a shoe, a toy, anything to get my attention and praise. Even when I didn’t need my jacket tugged off, or my shoes ‘fetched,’ I asked her to do it because she enjoyed it!”

Although the Puppy Raiser has unique insight into the puppy they are raising, they are sometimes surprised at the role the dog may play in the life of a client one day. “The trainers see things that I don’t see,” Joanne recalls. “Lily, the last puppy I raised, had good skills and was relatively large. I assumed she’d be a Service Dog. But she spent one week with Pat Jarvis, and it was discovered that she had terrific hearing skills.” Lily is now matched with a client who will use her for her fine hearing alerts.
The puppies at Fidos mature and thrive in the loving homes of their Puppy Raiser. The special bond created between volunteer and puppy is never erased. Pat was very excited to re-acquaint Joanne with the very first puppy she raised for the organization at the 10th Annual Stroll ‘n Roll in November. Higgins, a twelve-year-old black Labrador Retriever, now lives with Leah Miller in Calvert County. “Joanne and Higgins had a great reunion … there was no doubt that they remembered each other,” shared Pat. The bond was still there, and Higgins knew Joanne right away.

A permanent handprint is left on the hearts of the puppies because of the commitment of their Puppy Raiser. Also, each volunteer will tell you that the puppies leave permanent paw prints on their hearts as well. What’s not to love about a puppy? The Puppy Raisers will tell you it is more “fun” than it is “work.” It becomes an automatic process to work with the puppies daily to review their skills, cementing what they have learned. However, when they see the puppy do something as if it was second nature, they begin to understand the lasting effect of their training. Joanne will never forget a special moment with Chase, her second puppy.

“We were at Fidos one Wednesday evening, and a client asked if my puppy could pick up her cane that had fallen to the floor. When the puppy did, I was so surprised and overcome with emotion. The dog was merely doing what it had learned to do.” Joanne marvels at what the puppies seem to understand and what is expected. “The dogs really come into their own after they are placed and living with their clients. I’ve heard story after story of dogs doing things for which they were never specifically trained. Somehow these dogs learn what their clients need them to do.”

Puppy Raisers do not “go it alone.” A sponsor provides the funds needed to supply the puppy with food, veterinary care, toys, equipment, bedding, etc. The trainers provide direction, advice and encouragement in weekly training sessions, as well as responding to individual concerns as they arise. The puppy provides an avenue in which one can invest themselves in the life of another. Puppy kisses, wagging tails and unconditional love are a great additional “perk”! Joanne believes that being a Puppy Raiser is surprisingly easy. “These dogs are like gems. The trainers and I just polish them. These dogs are made to SHINE.”

If you would like more information about being a Puppy Raiser, please e-mail Erin Saywell at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reader Suggests Oldtown Neglected

An anonymous commenter responded to my previous article about the TIF Tiff and suggested that our Oldtown Laurel neighborhood is being neglected by the city.

Anonymous wrote: "A million bucks for a pool, 20 million for the mall, and not a cent for old town! The police station moves, the Leader moves, it's like the city doesn't care about us."

This comment got some attention at Laurel City Hall and Mayor Moe asked his staff to compile a list of the recent investment projects in Oldtown. I hesitate to post the list because it's an embarrassment of riches and I really don't want to start a squabble with other neighborhoods.
But since you asked here is the Mayor's list of appox. $8.9 million dollars worth of Oldtown projects:

Parks and Recreation Projects
Pool Renovations, 2003-2006, $613,000.
Armory Renovations, 2004-2006, $200,000.
McCullough Field Renovations and enhancements, 2005-2008, $592,000.
Riverfront Park Playground, 2006, $40,000.
Riverfront Park Pavilions, 2005, $20,000.
Riverfront Park Bathroom, 2008, $12,000.
Emancipation Park Playground, 2007, $50,000.

Scheduled Parks and Rec Projects
Riverfront Park Extension, 2009, $100,000.
McCullough Field Pavilion, 2009, $20,000.
Mill Dam Ruins Renovation, 2009-2010, $325,000.
Riverfront Park Interpretive Signs , 2009, $22,000.
Armory Renovations, 2009-2010, $375,000.

Public Works Projects (Total approx. $5.5M from 2003-2008)
Repaved all of Main Street from the MARC Station to 7th Street
New brick pavers for the sidewalks from the MARC Station to 7th Street.
Route 1 SB & NB completely reconstructed and new sidewalks from the County line to Rt 198.
Various additional street improvements and repaving on Montgomery and 8th Streets
Installed 229 traditional lampposts on Main Street and Rt 1. ($750K!)

You gotta love living in a town where a blog comment is made on Tuesday night and the Mayor provides a detailed response on Thursday.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Laurel Commons TIF Tiff?

Our Laurel City Council will soon be deciding if the city should invest in the Laurel Commons Mall project in the form of a TIF. It's a complicated issue and citizens have strong opinions. The TIF is creating quite a tiff. I'm sure council members are not taking their decision lightly.

A lot of us are talking about the TIF. Some folks are opposed to any form of public financing. There is a lot of public financing going around these days. From bailouts to buyouts and people are getting fed up. "Bulldoze the mall and build a park." "Why should my taxes be used to bailout a developer?" "We don't need anymore retail in Laurel."

Other people want to understand all the details, "Will the city be left holding the bag, if the mall redevelopment fails?" How can we be sure that the developer accomplishes what they promise, they still haven't even started to tear down the parking deck like they said 2 years ago?" "Why aren't we getting any high end stores like Columbia Mall?"

The Mayor sees the Laurel Commons project as necessary for the long-term economic success of our city. He believes that we need to redevelop the mall and use it as the engine that drives redevelopment along Laurel's Route 1 commercial core.

This is both a complex and often emotional issue. It's hard to explain and even harder for the experts, let alone laypeople to understand. This is not an envious position for any city council member. But don't fear, I think that our TIF tiff took a positive turn over the last few weeks. And it's because of the dedication of a couple of real Laurel heroes.

We often think that public heroes are like the brave firefighter who rushes into the burning house. But there is another kind of hero who rushes headlong into thorny, public policy debates. I'll get to our heroes later, but first let me recap our story.

A TIF is a form of public financing. A developer asks the local government to provide some of the funding for public infrastructure improvements associated with a project, for example, parking facilities, roads, or street lights.

The government borrows money (sells a bond) that is used to finance the infrastructure improvements. But there is a twist. Instead of the government directly paying off the bond over thirty years, like my mortgage, the government uses the development's property taxes to pay off the debt. The TIF concept is based on the assumption that the improved property's value will increase over time because of the new development. With TIF, the bond is paid off by using a part of the future "tax increment."

The Laurel Commons developers asked the county and the city to finance over $30 million of public infrastructure improvements. The Prince Georges County government bailed out of the deal early. That left the city to decide if and how much to invest.

Now our two heroes enter the story.

Jim McCeney went to the TIF public hearing a couple of weeks ago. Jim spent many years as a financial officer of a large corporation. He had a lot of questions about the TIF. He was trying to understand the deal in all of its details. He really wanted to know if the TIF was viable and if the developer failed at some point in the life of the deal, would the city need to pay more than we bargained for? Was this TIF the right deal for this city at this time?

At the public hearing, Jim pressed his TIF questions. City staff and consultants provided answers to the best of their ability at this point in the process. But Jim was not fully comfortable that he understood the details.

A lesser policy hero would've stopped at this point. It would have been easy for Jim to just drop it and move on. He is just a citizen. He has other things to spend time on. But Jim didn't drop it. He called around. He asked more questions. He asked for a meeting with the administration and their consultants. He spent a lot of his time. And at the end of the day, Jim got answers to his questions.

This is when Kristie Mills, another dedicated policy hero enters our story. Kristie is the city's administrator. She is the big boss, after our elected officials. Kristie is the day-to-day manager of the city.

I don't know if Jim inspired her to do it, but Kristie ran into all the confusion and fog of the complex TIF issue and she made magic. She wrote a briefing, in plain English, that we can all understand. You can read her briefing on the City's website. Here is a little bit of it.

• A TIF can only be used for public improvements.
• It cannot be used for any private purpose.
• The property owner is responsible for the remainder of the financing package.
• The numbers will be defined in the ordinance as "not to exceed".
• There is no financial risk to the City with the TIF Special Obligation Bonds.
• Payment of the TIF Special Obligation Bonds is derived from the real property tax revenues.
• The Administration believes this is the best package they can offer while still protecting the City now and in the future!

I recommend that you take a few minutes and read Kristie's whole briefing. It's very easy to follow.

The city council still has difficult TIF decisions to make. Council chambers are often frightening places. However, I think we all owe a debt of thanks to our public policy heroes Jim McCeney and Kristie Mills. They went above and beyond the call of duty and we will all make more informed decisions because they did.