Protest Vote On Akcess (AKA Gotta Have Faith)
I was the only member of the Common Council to vote No on the Akcess Acquisition Group's plan to put an office building and hotel/restaurant (Supple Group developers) on the Fox river. It was mostly a protest vote, as the real vote on the office building was when we voted on the "revised term sheet" agreement with Akcess in July. For the Council to turn down the project at this point, said the city attorney, could be a breach of contract. So even though the words "office building" and "hotel/restaurant" appear nowhere in the term sheet, it was the vote on that term sheet that constituted agreement to them.
The office and hotel/restaurant may end up being successful. Jay Supple said that the hotel may include a Montreal Bread Company, a European style deli which his restaurant group is opening in Milwaukee's old third ward. A Montreal Bread Company would represent at least something unique about the development.
I had several problems with the proposal that resulted in the protest no vote:
*We approved the proposal as part of our "Consent Agenda." Consent agenda items, unless they are laid over, get only one reading. Because the office building and hotel/restaurant were actually approved during a term sheet vote in which the project names do not appear, the public never had a meaningful chance to talk to the council about the projects when it mattered. In that sense, this process was as closed and sneaky as the ill-fated "Five Rivers Resort" fiasco.
*As of Tuesday's meeting, the Akcess group says that it has one "letter of intent" from a financial institution to move into the office building (even if that's true, do we really need a bank on the river?). Other pledges, we were told, were waiting for the Council approval of the project (even though it's now agreed to by everyone that the July vote WAS the approval). But even if Akcess succeeds in getting tenants, by their own admission the tenants will largely be drawn from already existing space in town. We are told that when that happens, the owners of the newly open space will be forced to upgrade in order to compete. Interesting theory, but not realistic given the state of the economy and the fact that it's hard to find examples of such a thing anywhere in the country.
*We already have one failed hotel downtown. I think the Supple Group can make a new hotel work, but I simply think we needed more evidence to support the claim that it can. Especially since we do not have a commercial airport in Oshkosh, I am struggling to understand why someone would fly into Outagamie, drive out of a city (Appleton) that has lots of great restaurants and a nightlife, to stay in an expensive hotel in Oshkosh located next to an office building. The hotel will probably have no problem getting guests during EAA, but what will happen during all other times of the year? Let's hope for the best.
*The Department of Community Development went out of its way to argue that this development does not come with the financial risks that plagued the 100 block of North Main St. project. I don't think a convincing case was ever made to that effect, but let's assume for the sake of argument that the Ackess proposal carries no financial risks at all. I argued at the meeting that financial is only one kind of risk a city council needs to be concerned with. The other is "quality of life" risk. If in several years we are left with underutilized buildings on prime riverfront property, that is a real quality of life issue.
One snag that may get in the way of all of this is environmental remediation of the site. Mr. Kinney tried to assure us that this will not be a problem. Like every other part of this project, we just have to have faith that he is right. This is, after all, a classic case of faith based river development.