By Stephen Knight
The Wallingford Town Council is set to decide whether to repave/renovate three parking lots in our town center. The lot drawing controversy is, once again, the one behind the buildings in Simpson Court. The same people opposing this investment have been making the same abstruse arguments and twisting the facts of the matter all out of shape for eleven years, and they are at it again. They have created a very target-rich environment for those of us who support the project to go after, but, alas, limited space requires me to settle on just two of their contentions: 1) public money cannot be spent on a private business; and 2) this project only benefits the four property owners.
Government should not use tax money to benefit private businesses: Where to start? First of all, foy years our municipal government already has been assisting private businesses. Let’s look at the recent past, when, in 2019, the Town Council gave a $355,000 tax assessment deal to the company that purchased the Hilton Garden Inn. It was an extension of the previous deal that the Town Council had given the previous owner, who had sold it to the present owner.
Here are three more examples: 1) Wisely, the Town of Wallingford budgets $10,000 per year for Wallingford Center Inc. to distribute to private businesses to assist them on improving the façade of their business located in the town center. 2) The Town-owned and -operated Electric Division has established a discount program to assist private businesses that open their ventures in the town center district. 3) Tax incentives in the Incentive Housing Zone and the Transit Oriented District are there to encourage business investment.
Now let’s examine how our state government finds it important to issue direct payments to businesses in exchange for meeting certain commitments. A perfect example is the deal cooked up when Lockheed Martin purchased Sikorsky Aircraft in 2016. In exchange for $220 million dollars in grants and tax breaks over a 14-year period, Lockheed agreed to build their CH-53K King Stallion helicopter in their Stratford plant. The company had to agree to meet certain employment requirements as well as double their present level of purchases from 300 Connecticut suppliers.
The point is simply this: entering into a – note this carefully – 25-year-long lease arrangement with four private landowners and spending $300K (my estimate) to renovate the property that will provide the continuation and safety/aesthetic upgrade of free public parking lots that all town residents have enjoyed since 1961 is utterly in keeping with common government practice of engaging in agreements with private entities, a practice in use throughout our entire state and country.
The four landowners are the only beneficiaries of this agreement with the Town: The opponents would have people believe that this agreement is strictly for the benefit of the four property owners. That’s nonsense.
Forget that the lease of their property provides zero annual monetary compensation to them for the next 25 years, with the Town’s right to extend this lease for another 25 years.
And never mind the fact that the owners lose use of this property for the term of the lease, which may indeed mean that the property is out of their control for a term which could possibly not end until the year 2071.
They will indeed indirectly benefit by having free public parking adjacent to their property, and the property will be upgraded in 2021 by the Town at no cost to those land owners.
But the landowners are hardly the only beneficiaries. Every single town center business whose customers access any of the public parking lots in our town center will benefit. That is the whole point of having public parking. This benefit logically also includes every single resident of Wallingford who drives to the center of Wallingford to patronize the restaurants, stores, and professional offices there.
But even beyond that, it has been amply demonstrated in urban planning studies that a well-maintained, economically vibrant town center confers financial benefits to every single resident of the community. Businesses and industries looking to locate in a town always want to see the center of town, because any community with a successful town center is logically deemed to be a good place to locate business.
The argument advocating Town investment in the Simpson Court parking lot wins on its own merits, but in 2021, it takes on a whole additional exigency. Every retail business in the center of Wallingford has been devastated by pandemic restrictions. Many are hanging on by their proverbial fingernails. At this time in our town’s history, with so many being flattened by circumstances not of their own making, how could our town leaders turn their backs on these businesses’ plight?
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.