A reader participating in last week’s OKC Central Live Chat prompted a long-overdue discussion of the stress that exists between a public wanting to know details of downtown development and the developers who sometimes wish silence would prevail as long as possible.
The reader, “a friend to some urban developers,” said he was privy to their disdain over observers demanding constant updates. “Development especially in urban infill is a hard process with many entities involved,” the reader said, “and frankly it is not everyone’s business.”
Another reader was quick to respond, saying, “As a citizen of the city that pays for many of the entities the developers need to work through, I have every right to ask about updates. They’re using my tax dollars most of the time so they can deal with the questions about updates.”
News coverage of downtown development was very different 20 years ago. Internet bulletin boards were obscure and access was limited to a small fraction of the community. Online forums, local news websites and social media did not exist.
Developers and economic interests held more control over information. That’s not to say, however, that things always went their way. For years local reporters were told details of public incentives deals for new employers must be kept a secret to avoid a repeat of what officials claimed was the loss of a Harley-Davidson plant to premature publicity.
A decade ago, I was closely reporting on the city’s efforts to redevelop the then-closed Skirvin hotel. I discovered a key financial partner had backed out of the deal.
The team putting the redevelopment together asked me to hold my story for two weeks to allow them time to get a new equity partner. They made a persuasive case that premature publicity could have caused other partners to back out of the project, killing it altogether. I agreed and reported the story two weeks later when a new equity partner was secured. A decade later, all of the participants in the deal, including the city, seem quite happy with its outcome.
Other deals, however, demand thorough and timely reporting – with great risk to the public if such deals are not fleshed out in advance.
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber in 2008 sought more than $1 million in upfront payments to Tennessee-based Spheris in exchange for creating a 1,000-employee, work-at-home transcription operation with an average salary of $36,000.
The company, however, had losses totaling $2.8 million two years earlier. I reported that loss, the company’s instability, and the questions were brought up when the incentives were up for a final vote by the Oklahoma City Economic Development Trust.
The deal never advanced any further. Spheris filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy less than two years later and its assets were sold in a public auction.
Maybe both sides of this debate are correct. It’s a balancing act that if anything will get more difficult.