Developers must make changes or forfeit tax breaks

Public spending is supposed to serve the public interest. The developers of CentrePointe, the proposed 35-story eyesore downtown, apparently don’t understand that.

The developers are asking for about $70 million in tax breaks from the city to help finance the $250 million building. Under the current plans, the construction would demolish one of downtown’s most lively blocks, all to add some hotel rooms and condos to an area that’s hardly hurting for housing vacancies.

The proposed construction site, the Rosenberg Block — located between the corners of West Main and South Upper streets and West Vine and South Limestone streets — is home to The Dame, Buster’s and Mia’s. Losing those establishments would be a huge blow to the bar and music scene downtown.

It’s bad enough that chief developer Dudley Webb drew up the plan outside the public eye, only to hoist it on the city mere months before construction would start. But it’s downright tasteless to ask local residents — who had no meaningful input in the plan — to pay for more than a fourth of it.

Unless Webb makes serious changes to bring CentrePointe in line with the best interests of the community, there is no reason to line his pockets with taxpayers’ money. Lexington should not pay millions of dollars to cripple its own culture and nightlife.

First, while proponents say taxpayer-financed development makes up for the lost revenue by aiding economic growth, economists have cast doubt on this sales pitch. For instance, a 2000 study in the Journal of Economic Growth concluded that communities using tax dollars to fund development actually grow more slowly than those that don’t.

Second, and more importantly, sheer growth shouldn’t be Lexington’s only goal. Local culture and entertainment options also significantly affect the community’s quality of life, and they cannot be sacrificed just to fatten the economy. Besides, economy and culture are interdependent in the long run, as cultural centers attract more students, young professionals and other “creative class” members.

There are some simple solutions that would allow for balance between culture and growth, such as retaining the current Rosenberg Block establishments at the ground level and incorporating them into the CentrePointe structure. But in open letters to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Webb has dismissed suggestions like this.

He has the right to do so — and the city has just as much right to say it won’t subsidize a 35-story monstrosity. Unless Webb changes his tune before time runs out, the city council’s response should be simple: Pay for your own hotel.