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,



Anonymous said...

My City Property taxes have doubled over the last six years, yet my salary hasn't. The City has shown no fiscal prudence, continuing to rake in and spend the ballooning tax revenues. Especially in the current financial crisis, no business should be given such a huge tax break, while the residents get no relief at all.

We will soon be turned into the gambling capital of Maryland. The increased taxes from the offshoots of that ill-advised blunder and city-wide blight will certainly replace any short term differences resulting from not bailing out the current mall owners. Politicos, you will soon have to live with what you have brought down upon us!

Anonymous said...

the idea that we have to bail out the mall is just silly, we didn't bail out Laurel Lakes and look at it now. there is a reason the county told these guys to take a hike.

what are the developers going to do? eat the 50 million they invested because they didn't get 15 million of our money? the math doesn't work Rick

i'm also sick of the lies, at this point I wouldn't buy a bananna from Somera!

Anonymous said...

"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."

Exactly. Why should we pay you to play golf or the mall folks to sell us things?

Anonymous said...

I say what the hell, taxpayers are paying the banks, GM, and everybody else, why not let the mall pigs eat at the same taxpayer-trough as all the other greedy business pigs?

Oink Oink!!

Keith said...

Interesting post, Rick, but as the comments above indicate I think the anti-TIF sentiment is more about the general concept of government assistance to businesses rather than disappointment about what the Commons seems destined to become. Most businesses don't - and never will - have an opportunity to receive a government handout.

Maybe 40% of a TIF-assisted projected would be more beneficial to the city than the alternative. But nobody's telling us what the alternative is. I do know it isn't "nothing". It may take more time than city leaders are willing to wait, but eventually the mall property will be redeveloped. By someone. In some way. Even without help from the city. As mentioned above, the Laurel Lakes project is a perfect example.

At this point it looks like the TIF will happen. At least we can take some comfort in assuming that the project has a high likelihood of success. (Unlike the assistance being given to the horse racing industry mentioned above - that's not a "helping hand" to get started, it's a subsidy that will go on forever.)

Anonymous said...

I think the mall should mail each of us a discount card or we should get an ownership interest in the project.

As it stands, this project is money for nothing but empty promises (anyone know ANY of the stores?) I wonder who is getting a Christmas bonus for selling out the taxpayers like this?

Rick Wilson said...

I do appreciate the discussion, even though it's my old, fat, but now, newly toupeed head taking all the shots. I sure hope that there is at least one other person out there that is willing to post in support of the TIF.

1. Bailout - Some commenters are implying that the TIF is a bailout to the developers. That is not the case. The TIF can only be spent on infrastrucutre improvements that will be eventually owned by the city.

2. Why Now, Just Wait - Keith, that is exactly my point. I don't think we can wait for another deal. The mall property has been losing value for at least 8 years. It represents a significant part of the city's tax base. Our councilmembers know that calling their bluff could cause the developer to pull out. It might be another decade in this economy to get another deal. In the mean time we will have a blighted property on our hands and no way to dig it out. It ain't about the mall, it's about the long term viability of the part of the city.

3. I really can't accept the assertion that anyone is selling out tax payers. Every one of our elected officials wants what is best for the city. We may and should debate the strategy, but it is not fair to suggest that there any city offical is driven by personal gain.

Please keep the debate coming, I can take it. And if anyone wants to jump in to support the TIF, I could sure use the help!


Keith said...

I promise to leave the toupee intact, but...

re: "Why Now, Just Wait"

(1) It's impossible to determine whether the project really is worth doing without being able to compare it to the non-TIF alternative. And nobody has ever been willing to discuss that. Is it really "we'll just let the current Mall continue to rot?" I doubt it.

(2) Even with the TIF, I seriously doubt that the project will start anytime soon (due to the "credit crunch"). In the meantime, the plans will continue to change. And we'll be even less able to decide if it's worth TIF-ing for.

(3) That "significant part of the city's tax base" has been pretty insignificant for a long time. And yet the city has been throwing around quite a bit of cash recently (see pool purchases, etc).

(4) I take a bigger view of these things. They're just bad public policy, pitting community against community and giving one business an advantage over another. If these deals weren't "standard practice" for large-ish projects, whatever was economically feasible for Laurel might have started a year (or more) ago.

And it continues to bug me that this is happening in a zone where density was supposed to be traded for public amenities - and now assistance is being requested for pseudo-public amenities (with no real public amenities mentioned since the skating rink was deleted from the plan). And we'll still end up with more "restaurant islands in the middle of oceans of parking" along Route 1.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Rick. What he is saying makes total since. The city of Laurel needs to continue to improve and move forward, and move forward it will, regardless of all the oomplaining. If the TIF does not go through then the owners of the mall may not do anything, for who knows, years! Yes, the mall will get redeveloped sometime as someone wrote anyway but by that time that happens maybe half the people reading this post will be dead! Everytime I talk to someone who doesnt live in Laurel and I make a commit about the redevelopment of the mall and especially the tearing down of the parking garages they say something like "yeah, they need to do something about that its terrible." or "there are to many old heads in Laurel that hate change so it will always be a battle to get anyting done." Who ever is reading this go ahead and talk to someone outside of Laurel and ask them what they think about the mall. In the Laurel master plan the area of the mall is set aside for dense retail if I'm not mistaken, so folks, lets get this TIF aproved and move on improving our community and having pride in our mall.

Mike Sarich said...

Not being sold out? We're being asked to pay for their parking decks, lights and other things that every other developer pays for themselves. How exactly is the City going to “own” a resurfaced parking deck and lights? In fact owning it isn’t a benefit, it’s a burden. If you’re correct, it means that the City is going to be on the hook for repairs, maintenance and upkeep from now till eternity. Think that’s not being sold out?

I bet Fred Frederick would be delighted for the City to “own” his parking lot and lights. Not only would he have a lower tax bill because of a smaller property area, he’d be free from paying for the upkeep of the lot!

It really is unconscionable in my view to sell us one vision, agree to things like an ice-rink, and then flip the plan after the public has bought in. It’s like being promised a free Porsche and receiving a Pinto that you have to make payments on. In this case the payments are going to be 14 or more million of our tax dollars.

If it was me, I’d tell them to take their TIF “Somera” else.

Anonymous said...

I have talked to Jack Brock the Director of Planning for the city of Laurel and what you wrote(the blog before me) is totally incorrect. The mall owners are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep from now till eternity of all parking facilities etc. You can call Jack at 301-725-5300

Anonymous said...

I see the answer man is back...Mike Sarich the no it all Councilmember who changes his answers and positions like the wind. I read you were for it, then againist it and for it and then tried to get money from them and now you are not for it or helping them which is not what you said in the paper. Get a life Mike!

Mike Sarich said...

Glad to Anon back to his/her/its characteristic style.

For it/against it? I'm just a taxpayer with one vote out of the more than 10,000 plus registered voters.

The money you're referring to was funding for an MLK memorial concert, not for me, nice try.

I'll make you or Rick or anyone else a deal, if you can show me something, somewhere, anywhere in print where they correctly quote me as supporting this $14M + give-away, I'll donate $100.00 to LARS in your name.

Rick said, the city would own the improvements. So now, based on your contradictory reports, the City will simply be paying for the private improvements and advantage of a private landowner. Further, these improvements are traditionally borne by private developers (are the Gould's going TIF shopping?)and the County has correctly rejected them.

If you can add those concepts together and think it's a good use for our tax dollars, I have some Lehmann Brothers stock I'm sure you'd be interested in, it's printed on really pretty paper and sort of glitters, almost like gold...

Keith said...

Just a couple of thoughts in response to more recent comments...

"there are to many old heads in Laurel that hate change so it will always be a battle to get anyting done."

It's a mistake to equate being anti-TIF with being anti-change (kind of like equating anti-war with anti-military). I have no problem with the changes I think we can expect to see for the mall area in the future, but there are right ways and wrong ways of making them happen.

"In the Laurel master plan the area of the mall is set aside for dense retail if I'm not mistaken..."

Yes, in exchange for the "amenities" that have either disappeared or will be subsidized by the TIF.

"...this $14M + give-away..."

Of course, it's not really a $14 million giveaway. The true value of the "giveaway" is the difference between the net tax proceeds with the TIF and the net proceeds without. Not that anyone seems to be interested in talking about the "without" (at least, publicly). And, no, I don't accept the idea that "without" means the developers let it sit there for the next 10 years. They can't afford that.

To be honest, I'm surprised this is even being discussed at this time. Unless the developers have their financing locked in (hard to imagine in this environment), it would be pretty irresponsible to offer subsidies for a project where we're not 100% sure of what we're getting and when we're getting it. We don't need completed "amenities" around a partially-redeveloped mall.

Anonymous said...

good point Keith, why spend the $ and put up w/the headaches /traffic re-routes etc./ if we don't know what/when they're going to build and who is going to go there

Rick Wilson said...

I want to thank everyone of you that has commented about the TIF, publicly or via private email.

As everyone that took the time to read and comment already has said, this is an extremely important issue for our community. There is not much more I can say in support of the TIF. Those of you opposed have made your points as well.

I encourage everyone with an opinion on the TIF to write to the city council members. They want to hear from you. Taking the time to call or write amplifies your voice hundreds of times more than simply writing on a blog.

Public officials understand that for every person that is willing to email, call or write them, there are many more citizens who just haven't taken the time. Your opinion counts more than you can imagine.

1. You can reach all city council members with a single email at or

2. You can reach them individually by visiting their web page at for individual contact info.

Thanks again for the energetic discussion and I hope that you continue to find this blog a worthwhile community service.

Now I'm going to take some time to work on my golf swing and style my new toupee.

Best Regards,

- rick

Anonymous said...

I'm for anything that would get some motion on the long-overdue project. So I guess I'm for the TIF Rick. But what happens when no retailers want to make a gamble on a mall that's been dead for 8 years? What happens when this fabled movie theater closes? We're back to where we started.

Anonymous said...

they'll take OUR millions and laugh at us as, not only is this a ridiculous precedent to set, we are rewarding people that have LIED to us!!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rick Wilson said...

Anon, at 11:54 today. While I applaud your kind words to me and your support of the TIF, I can't allow what may be taken as disparaging remarks to be written about the readers and commenters who are opposed to the TIF.

I've deleted your post because I felt it went a little bit too far. You have made some excellent points about local economic development and I encourage you to post again.

Email and blog posts don't have the benefit of a smile or a wink. We therefore need to keep the discussion as civil as possible.