Monday, October 05, 2009

This is the House the Feds Built, Y'all!...

It should seem that Mayor Domenic Sarno cannot catch a break. One may be inclined to feel sorry for him were he not the primary architect of his troubles.

Some time ago, the former Springfield Finance Control board voted to approve a lease for Springfield School Department in the former Springfield Federal Building and Courthouse. Now owned by MassDevelopment, the lease did not need to go out to bid because it was between government agencies. However, City Councilor Tim Rooke claims that the city will be spending far too much money for the lease on the former Federal Building and could get a better deal from local office building landlords.

A few facts must be noted. The Springfield School Department Building, present located across from Merrick Park (where the Chapin statue stands), is grotesquely outdated and unhealthy. The nearly century-old building lacks air conditioning and adequate parking among other things. Efforts to move the department and its 150 or so employees waxed and waned for years. However, the city's financial position and disagreements about where it should go stymied any serious efforts for change. Speculation about relocating the department at the old Federal building came up periodically, but remained talk as the new Courthouse further up on State Street experienced delays and setbacks.

Moreover, despite the requests by the City Council and School Committee to put out bids, the Control Board's orders stand, mostly due to the decision by Mayor Sarno to stay the course. Furthermore, while not all agree with him all the time, Councilor Rooke's opposition must be taken as that of honest dissension. On the council since 1995, he is the only sitting member of the Council who served through the Albano years to apologize for the council's failure to keep the city out of the financial abyss.

On the surface it appears that both the FCB and now Sarno chose the Federal Building partly as an economic development measure. There is no other evidence to contradict that. In less fiscally tight times, Rooke's complaints might still be taken seriously, but economic development could easily forking over money to private hands. Indeed, private rents would be higher in better times, theoretically. However now? Not so much.

Indeed making the Federal Building "go dark" unlikely as that is, would be a blow to the area. The Federal Building sits on the fulcrum between the city's modern offices and many of its pre-war ones. Already less people work there, the former employees now up at the new building. Placing the school department there could mitigate that inevitable loss of business to lunchtime food outlets. However, placing the employees just about anywhere else in downtown's modern offices would have the same effect.

Additionally, media reports imply the tenancy of the Bay State Health offices committed to the Federal Building is not contingent on the School Department. Therefore the Federal Building, which still has a few federal employees too will not "go dark."

Another concern not brought up by Rooke's opponents is the concern of having the city subsidize private landlords. The nearly complete absence of office development over the last two decades attests to the lack of demand for office space in the city. Major tenants like Unicare left structures like the Sovereign Bank leaving high downtown vacancy rates in their wake. By installing government offices of any stripe in private offices, the landlords may become increasingly dependent on those government offices and find it less necessary to search for private tenants and who knows even consider new commercial developments.

The Federal Building seems like a natural spot for the School Department, however any such arrangement must be financial advantageous to the city. If that is not possible, then the concerns about subsidies to landlords is frankly the least of the city's problems. There is no good reason that the city should be paying out so much for the Federal Building. If Governor Deval Patrick wanted to stand by his FCB he could certainly lean on MassDevelopment to come to a fairer deal with the city and its school department.

Sarno is once again failing to take the reins on this issue effectively. Rooke has called on the mayor to debate the issue and so far, that has not happened. Even if you think Rooke is wrong, nobody can argue with a demand for a open and public discussion. Complaints about the control board high handed-ness abound, but many were related to votes that affected interest groups like municipal unions. This issue arguably strikes at the very heart of the FCB mission: fiscal responsibility.
*Federal Building photo from City of Springfield website

No comments: