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Wayne's Words: Move forward with caution on high-tech incubator

Wayne Horne | 7/26/2017, 3:14 p.m.
Columnist Wayne Horne cautions the city to take a step back and proceed with caution before investing city funds in ...

whorne@thetimesweekly.com

Last week the Joliet City Council gave its Ok on an entrepreneurial project known as Startup Pavilion, Inc. doing business as Innovation Pavilion, Inc. The concept was presented as a public-private partnership. That’s the new buzzword for projects the private sector wants to accomplish but wants taxpayer dollars to subsidize. That doesn’t make it a questionable concept. It does give the public-sector (Joliet) room to contemplate the endgame over a longer period of time. I’ll come back to this further down the column.

Another project being considered for a public-private partnership in the Joliet area is the proposed bridge over the Des Plaines River that will connect Center-Point Intermodal with Interstate 80 via Houboldt Road. According to sources, the bridge appears to be moving closer to reality. Infrastructure projects like the one being proposed can be not only beneficial to Center-Point but also easy on the taxpayer’s wallet.

There is one side of the equation not always openly discussed and that is the aspect of who controls the structure once it is completed. There are numerous examples of the negative effects that occur when control of a project is ceded to the private-sector side of the deal. Two examples in metro Chicago are the privatization of parking meters and the Chicago Skyway. Public access to their use has become very expensive for the public that needs to use them.

The bottom line here is the long view needs to be considered before public money, i.e. taxes, is committed. Consider the two past projects that have drained Joliet tax dollars because the long-term costs were not considered prior to committing the dollars. Evergreen Terrace housing complex will cost the city of Joliet far into the future for maintenance and capital improvements. Sometime in the future the city becomes responsible for operating the complex along with all the associated costs. We have already forked over more than $10 million for Evergreen and have yet to get the keys to the place.

Another example of long term costs with very little expected return on investment is the not-yet-renamed baseball park, formerly known as Silver Cross Field. It’s actually still called that, but now it’s a freebie for Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. The City is set to begin installing artificial turf at the end of the Joliet Slammers season. That cost is $1.2 million. The Slammers pay less than $80,000 rent annually.

Attendance at Slammers games this year is below last year’s. The weather has probably been a factor in attracting fans so far. Even with the All-Star game played in the stadium this year, projected fan attendance based on the remaining games is about 83,000. Meanwhile, a few miles up the road at Boomer Stadium in Schaumburg, attendance to date this year is 108,324 with 16 games left.

Coming back to the latest public-private partnership, Innovation Pavilion, Inc., the city council committed to an investment of $200,000 when and if the project is actually started in Joliet. That’s a good agreement since no tax funds are paid until the project is up and ready to go. Another project the Innovation Pavilion is working on in Olathe, KS sounds similar to the proposed project in Joliet. The request for funds there is $70,000. Olathe is a similar size city to Joliet about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City, MO. According to CEO Vic Ahmed, Joliet was one of six communities, out of 40 solicited, that responded to his request for the opportunity to submit a presentation of the project.