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Prohibitionist delusions of downtown grandeur

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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I was under the impression that panhandling in downtown Iowa City had been self-righteously curtailed, but yesterday, I saw that poor impoverished ragamuffin Marc Moen sitting wistfully in front of City Hall with his tin cup and “please help” sign, asking for $250,000 in change for his next multimillion dollar project: remodeling the building formerly occupied by Vito’s. The city will apparently fork it over in the form of tax-increment financing in exchange for converting the building to retail and office space rather than a bar or restaurant. As you might have heard, more trinket shops and less alcohol is the goal here.

The Planning and Zoning memo to the Economic Development Committee (released April 15) illuminates a couple of facts that bring into question Moen’s need for the taxpayers’ help. First, he has already purchased the building, so it seems doubtful he entered into this venture without the financial resources to accomplish the renovation. Second, the memo states that “Mr. Moen is currently in negotiations with several potential retailers,” so it seems he won’t have trouble finding a tenant that suits the city’s social-engineering objectives. Why, then, is this handout necessary?

Given that all involved in this decision have probably made up their minds, it’s likely unfruitful to direct this question to Planning and Zoning or Economic Development, which will meet Tuesday morning to complete the agreement. Because I don’t have any insider information, I’m compelled to resort to idle speculation — which is more fun anyway.

Is this a mild form of extortion? Perhaps Moen might be saying to the city, “hand over some cash, see, or I’ll put another bar there instead of a trinket shop. Yeah, sure would be a shame to see another bar downtown, now wouldn’t it?”

Or maybe the city just likes him. A lot.

Those in favor of gratuitous handouts for the rich and/or neo-prohibitionist eliminationism may not have a problem with this, but I sure as hell do.

I’m sure Planning and Zoning does the math differently than I, but I don’t see this adding up as a bargain for the taxpayers, for a least a couple of reasons: One, it seems quite clear that Moen has the means to accomplish his objective without going on welfare; two, the Pedestrian Mall just doesn’t look like a blighted area in need of financial incentives for development. And while I’m venting my frustration with this municipal government, I’m not a big fan of its “vision” for transforming this town by using a great deal of our money to shuffle people and legitimate businesses around at the whim of a handful of Mayberry oligarchs, targeting establishments for annihilation, chasing young people out to the dark margins, and generally displaying considerable arrogance, contempt, and hostility toward a large percentage of the population.

This elitist authoritarian mindset, which has taken hold in the ranks of those with power and influence, is a relatively new thing in this town, and I don’t like it much. It seems officials would like to banish everyone who doesn’t resemble the faceless figures in their vision, who might have been painted by Monet, pretty but out of focus. Beautiful people milling about with strollers and parasols, expensive-looking architecture, idyllic open spaces, artsy-fartsy bike racks. Looking at the drawings of what they have in mind for the areas to be redeveloped, I notice a striking absence of drunken frat boys, fat people, and can scroungers. In other words, it’s pure fantasy.

And it’s gonna cost us a lot of money.

Bob Thompson is an Iowa City resident.


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