Governments and Developers Play “Hide the Hand” with Communities

Ikon Hotel

Milwaukee       The topic for the session with the Amani United leaders was community benefit agreements and that meant digging deeper to understand not only the coming Democratic National Convention and its impact, but more immediately something called the Ikon Hotel project at the border of Amani along with the development and financing plans of Kaylan Haywood, a local Milwaukee developer.  I had read the articles on the project, but in preparing the leaders that meant reading between the lines as well.  As the gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, famously used to say, “that’s when things got weird!”

            Leaders and members of Amani United had gone to the Planning Commission hearing.  Haywood then promised to negotiate a community benefits agreement, but the Amani United task was now to convert a promise into action and an agreement clearly spelled out between the parties.  Subsequently, at the City Council meeting and afterwards he had been dilatory in responding as leaders tried to nail down a time to meet.  As I helped prepare the leadership for the eventual negotiations with some confidence that he could run, but he couldn’t hide, and began to understand more about the project, I had more questions than answers for them in the briefing.

            Yes, the Council approved $4 million for the project, but they didn’t exactly give Haywood any money.  In fact, quite the opposite.  In Wisconsin, there is an interesting municipal instrument which the newspapers called a “development TIF,” but real estate lawyers more accurately called a “developer-funded tax increment financing.”  Like any TIF, the money is created by skimming off future tax revenues generated by the project to pay for the development, but in a developer-funded TIF it works differently.  In this case the developer will have to give the City of Milwaukee $4 million dollars up front, and the city will repay Haywood from a share of the tax revenues once the project is producing them.  It also became easier to understand why the head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Agency (WEDA) was so widely quoted in all of the articles supporting the project.  Haywood indicated that $1.5 million of the money would be earmarked to pay off the loan he had received to purchase the property only a year or so ago.  The lender had been WEDA, so of course they were big fans of this deal because they would be first in line, after Haywood used the city’s approval as collateral for a loan to pay the city upfront. 

            The rest of the financing the developer had reported was fluffy.  He mentioned historic tax credits too, but he has to find a broker or investor willing to buy the credits or give them to him.  He also mentioned the newest controversial development scam out there, Trump’s Opportunity Zones that emerged from his big tax cuts last year for the rich and corporations.  The zones were ostensibly to help spur tech development around the country and boosted by Napster and Facebook billionaire Sean Parker, but practically they have to benefit lower income census tracts that are approved by the governor for inclusion or projects that abut such tracts.  All of which gives Amani United critical leverage, and makes me and other observers to wonder if there is really any money at all behind the project.

            Ironically, part of the smokescreen from the developer and its political allies in various levels of government at the margins of the discussion with Amani United had been whether or not the Amani neighborhood was within some random, arbitrary mapping boundaries of one of the authorities.  It turns out that they are, but that was always an irrelevant straw-man.  Haywood himself has argued for the project based on his “marketing surveys” indicating benefits to the whole area.  Furthermore, he can’t touch the Opportunity Zone financing without benefits to the entire census track and abutting lower income areas, so who is kidding whom?

            Disturbingly, the development is caught talking out of both sides of its mouth.  It wants to ignore community concerns and commitments on benefits claiming anything is good for the northside and no worries.  On the other hand, it is touting the project based on its closeness to downtown, the new arena, access to the Democratic National Convention, and would be a tech center with housing and businesses, including a we-work type space.  The lipstick he’s putting on this pig means he is dressing it up for full-scale gentrification, community be damned!

            All of which simply means, he’s just a garden variety developer like the rest of his class and clan, painting castles in the sky to anyone willing to buy the dream, and hoping Amani United and everyone else will never force him to put his feet and the project solidly on the ground.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Why is it so Hard to Talk about Organizational Structure?

Milwaukee       Amani United, like a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, is an embryonic organization attempting to emerge from its status as a project of a larger organization into a membership, resident-led organization that can spread its own wings and fly.  On this point everyone agrees, including the leadership core of Amani United and its parent organization, the Dominican Center.  Getting there is never easy, but it is easy to forget how important it is to get the structure right from the very beginning, and that was the task for hours of discussion on a harsh spring evening in Milwaukee as Amani leaders gathered to take on this task.

Ironically, structure is so important, but why is it so hard to talk about organizational structure?  I think there are a lot of reasons.  Organizational experience and participation continue to plummet whether in unions, voluntary associations, scouting, church, or even the NRA.  People just don’t have the cradle-to-grave kind of organizational attachments that were common fifty years ago.  But, it’s not just that.  The models are less transparent and less discussed.

Regular reports indicate that civic education is no longer a fundamental part of public education throughout the United States.  Fewer schools teach it at all as a mandatory subject.  People no longer know, even in a rudimentary way, how local, state, and federal governments work.  There’s also every indication that confusion is by design rather than accident.  Right now, in the standoff between Congress and the White House over information and transparency and the Trump administration’s refusal to respond to subpoenas, we can see a vivid example.  Politicians and governmental employees at all levels don’t want the public to know how it all works or see behind the screen of TV, tweets, and press releases.  Such concerted efforts to not make democracy work, make it harder even at the grassroots level for people of good will and intention who are trying to design a structure for their own organization to puzzle out exactly what their own democracy should be, making every choice hard and every decision difficult.

Trying to address this with the Amani United leaders, I devised a page-and-a-half “decision tree” or checklist of threshold structural questions with yes-or-no answers in some cases and little-more-none and similar multiple-choice selections when it came to accountability questions.  Where people came to consensus most quickly was on the need to hold leaders accountable, and this might be part of the reaction to current organizational and governmental practice.

The hardest questions revolved around confusion over exactly what a nonprofit association is and what it can do as a nonprofit versus a tax-exempt nonprofit.  Funders and others have so hopelessly blurred the lines that regular citizens simply don’t know the difference, forcing them to make kneejerk decisions that might hobble their futures without even understanding the choices they might be making.  The other Gordian knot is membership itself.  People are clear they want leaders accountable, but it becomes harder for people to easily sort out their conflicting desires to both be inclusive in their community and also be effective as an organization.  Can just anyone be a member?  Should there be classes of membership with different rights and obligations?  Should members pay dues and agree to the principles of the organization?  Can nonresidents be members of a community-defined organization like Amani United, and what should be done about property owners who may be absentee landlords.

Yes, these questions aren’t easy to answer in the best of circumstances, but once everything about organizational and civic activity is “throw the rock and hide the hand,” people are left clueless in trying to devise a more perfect union in their own organization.

What can I say?  It’s a process!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail