City decides to roll the dice

Officially, it’s settled: The City Council went through the formality this week of approving Winslow Way’s $12.5 million improvement project, which will launch in the spring of 2010.

Officially, it’s settled: The City Council went through the formality this week of approving Winslow Way’s $12.5 million improvement project, which will launch in the spring of 2010.

The decision was essentially preordained since the mayor and four council members never wavered – during a lengthy and expensive (Winslow Tomorrow) process – from their primary objectives: to replace deteriorating underground utilities; improve the above-ground aesthetics between SR-305 and Grow Avenue; and, as a result of the improvements, encourage development that would increase residential and commercial activity on the street .

The proponents received considerable opposition from three council members and a vocal number of citizen activists, most of whom agree that the first objective is advisable but characterize the second goal as unnecessary and the third as grandiose, irresponsible and catering to a select few members of the business community. Critics also had a city financial crisis and citizen outrage as amunition for their argument, which led to proponents dumping items such as an ancillary parking garage and reluctantly cutting about $7 million out of the original proposal.

Yes, the proponents admitted, it’s unfortunate that utility ratepayers will have to pay for about $7.5 million of the project, but it has to be done. They also pointed to $6 million the city obtained through state and federal grants – use-it-or-lose-it money, they said. Then there’s the $1 million coming from “anonymous” owners of Winslow Way properties to place the street’s power underground.

In a way, it was one of those ploys where the seller offers a commidity at an inflated price, trims it decisively and then tells you what a great deal you just got. Lucky you.

The opposition argued that it would be irresponsible considering the city’s precarious financial situation for it to do any more than replace the utilities during the next two years. And, at the 11th hour, council chair and project opponent Bill Knobloch asked that construction be delayed a couple of years because of the potential for an economic catastrophe for many Winslow Way businesses. No, said the council majority, it’s too late to reconsider.

The motion by Knobloch was his reaction to a lengthy letter (posted on written and distributed to the city by island developer John Green, who is convinced the city is courting a perfect-storm disaster because of the stress the recession is already placing on the district’s businesses.

After describing the chaos that will occur with heavy equipment tearing up the street through 2010 and into 2011, at a time when Winslow Way businesses would like to be recovering from an economic downturn that may have already caused some to go out of business, he wrote: “Construction of this magnitude …will force some business owners to close their doors and others to suffer unnecessarily in order just to maintain status quo. We must think of this probable disastrous effect, not only on the individuals, but also on the entire community at large.”

And that’s not all. There’s the possibility that Town and Country Market, as a result of its proposed land swap with the downtown Post Office, could be simultaneously involved in a major expansion project.

Likely, reality lies somewhere between “What me, worry?” and “The sky is falling.” Who’s to say what the future holds? But this is a fact: the city is gambling with the community’s well-being at an inoppertune time – when the entire nation has slipped into unchartered waters.