Wednesday, December 21, 2016

New 'Team TIF' Effort Takes on the St. Louis Development Corporation

Posted By on Wed, Dec 21, 2016 at 6:25 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PHILIP LEARA

Any time developers ask for a tax incentive package in the city of St. Louis, they need the blessing of the St. Louis Development Corporation, or SLDC. But even though such incentives have become among the most hotly debated topics in the city in recent months, few residents could tell you anything about who's on the corporation — much less what role they play once they're there.

Enter Team TIF.

The loosely organized band of progressives that's been questioning the city's penchant for such deals is unveiling a new web-based project today, A St. Louisan's Guide to the SLDC. In a series of easy-to-understand slides, the site explains what the corporation is, what it does, who's on it — and, in some cases, suggests their various potential conflicts of interest.

Molly Metzger, a member of Team TIF who's by day a professor at Washington University, says that the group's goal is to provide a counterweight to the real estate professionals and developers who tend to get involved with the corporation. Ultimately, they hope that will force the city to take a harder line in negotiations — using its resources to help truly blighted areas or to ensure projects have an affordable housing component, not just rubber stamp tax giveaways.

After all, when high-end projects don't pay their share toward city services, that leaves less money for valuable city services like public schools or police.

"Occasionally, you'll find a token voice for the people or the St. Louis Public Schools weigh in on these projects, but they're totally overwhelmed by the insiders who have major conflicts of interest and want to see them go through," Metzger says. "We're trying to bring accountability to the process."

With those in the development world serving on the corporation that then signs off on deals for developers, city government "looks more like an oligarchy than a democracy," Metzger says.

That's an idea the new web project touches on. The site notes, for example, that Wendy Timm is the chair of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, which signs off on tax abatements, tax-exempt revenue bonds and "blight" recommendations to the Board of Aldermen. That position also earns her a seat on the SLDC.

But as a senior vice president at Collier's International, Timm lists as one of five major clients the Lawrence Group. That's the developer of City Foundry, the large project now underway in Midtown — and getting $19.4 million in tax incentive financing from the city.

Team TIF doesn't allege there's anything wrong with that per se. Still, Metzger sees this basic background info about the SLDC as key to understanding its actions — and trying to push back against questionable deals. Staffers working for the SLDC are being pushed by board members, developers and developers' lawyers to say to things, she says. "What we're trying to do is pull them toward the side of the people."

Otis Williams, the executive director of the development corporation, did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

But if Team TIF's previous efforts are any indication, the site — dry though its topic may appear to be — could well have city residents buzzing. Metzger says that the group first came together after Michael Brown's shooting via an advocacy organization called South City Solidarity. With others taking the lead on other areas of racial justice, she and a handful of others decided to look at housing policy.

From those humble beginnings have come numerous efforts to get the city paying attention to all the money being given away — and the group's contention that it doesn't have to be that way. Metzger's slideshow "What Is TIF" was unveiled at the Schlafly Public Library earlier this year, and she was shocked to see a packed room. The presentation has since been made at other venues, with the same result. The RFT also featured a related effort, an interactive website with numbers from Andrew Arkills, that also generated serious interest from city residents.

"We saw a void, and aimed to fill it," she says. "And now it's taken on a life of its own."

For more from Team TIF, "like" its Facebook page or check its new SLDC presentation on its website.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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