Point Austin: Money Matters

The city says "never mind!" on Midtown Live loan – and everybody's hanging fire

Point Austin
Let's just say we're all doing our part to Keep Austin Really Weird.

That was certainly one conclusion to be reached this week, as the Midtown Live loan proposal was abruptly converted by the City Council – or at least by some council members – from a question to be put to public discussion to That-Project-We-Talked-About-but-Decided-Not-to-Do. On April 1, appropriately enough, Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Betty Dunkerley released a statement which began, "There remains considerable confusion over the Council action on Thursday, Mar. 24." No duh. It had been reported (here and elsewhere) that the council had voted to reconsider the matter after 60 days of public discussion; Wynn and Dunkerley (echoed by City Manager Toby Futrell in the Statesman) said no, the loan is off the table, but the "facilitated community discussion" is expected to produce "a broader set of recommendations for the City's economic development program" to be specifically aimed at the African-American community (and if Midtown Live wants to get in line for an existing program, hey, everybody's welcome).

That the confusion extended to the council itself was made plain not only by puzzled reactions (on opposite sides of the fence) from Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas, but also because only Wynn and Dunkerley had signed off on this statement. Daryl Slusher issued his own release, which reiterated his concerns that continued focus on the nightclub loan proposal would distract the city from the larger questions concerning city support for the black community. And Slusher was refreshingly clearer on the final outcome, declaring, "I do not support the Midtown forgivable loan proposal and I would not support it if such a proposal emerged from the 60-day process which the Council approved last week."

While the insistence that "postponement" really meant "cancellation" is face-saving silliness (Futrell wished it away as "government gobbledygook"), with four council members now explicitly on record as opposing the Midtown deal, the chances of it reviving in anything like the original form – up to a $750,000 loan, with forgiveness tied to minimal performance standards – appear quite dead. That's not to say we won't spend several weeks discussing what went wrong, but Slusher provided a handy summation: "It was outside existing City programs; there was no process; and it was done in haste."

The Baylor Factor

Folks are already lining up to harangue the council on the Midtown misplay, but the clumsy, panicky way the entire matter was handled – a direct consequence, despite official denials, of the public relations disaster created by the stupid, unprofessional, and marginally racist comments of Austin Police Department officers during the Midtown Live fire – backfired completely. The deal was already on life support when the city released Futrell's memo to Brewster McCracken, summarizing the discussions that had taken place, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, among Futrell, Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, and Jo Cash Baylor, acting on behalf of her mother, Selena Cash, and the Cash family (owners of the nightclub). Futrell has taken considerable pains to insist that the police episode and the effort to assist the club are separate matters, but that's a distinction entirely lost on Baylor. According to the memo, Baylor says she had rejected national pressure to "elevate this [police] issue" in order to "work with the city," but she also linked the fire incident to another six years ago when police had been slow to respond to an emergency call at the club.

More significantly, Baylor arrived with a $750,000 figure in mind and the notion that either a forgivable loan or an outright grant was in order. Without so much as a "Let me think about it," Baylor rejected outright Futrell's suggestion that she consider $400,000 along the lines of the (since repaid) loan to Liberty Lunch. It is difficult to read this discussion of the money, from Baylor's perspective, as anything other than city reparations for police misconduct, and if Futrell had not been operating under that considerable shadow, she could have smiled politely and said, "We think a $400,000 low-interest loan is a very healthy gift horse."

Long Memories

Perhaps things would have gone better if Selena Cash had spoken for herself, but who knows? It doesn't help that when we last saw Jo Baylor's public hand in our fair city, she was running for state rep (1996) on a Republican platform of capping property tax appraisals at 5%. Had she succeeded (as her colleagues at the Capitol persist in attempting), there wouldn't be enough city money left around to put out real fires, let alone symbolic ones. Before that, with the help of former Council Member Eric (My Way or the Highway) Mitchell, she was attempting to muscle the city into handing her de facto neighborhood park land for a housing development. Whatever the behavior of some idiot cops, Baylor's is not a record that engenders community trust.

In the short term, the most we can hope for is that the Midtown Live argument doesn't quickly degenerate into that peculiar American madness of racial absolutism, with only two available positions: Either you're against the loan and therefore a racist, or you're for the loan and are therefore playing the race card. By explicitly abandoning the loan, the council is obviously hoping that the public discussion can turn to the broader questions raised by the "African American Community Scorecard" – what are the specific challenges facing Austin's black community, how do we address those problems as a community, and what should be the city's official role?

To that effort we can only say, good luck and Godspeed. end story

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city government, Midtown Live, Toby Futrell, City Council, Will Wynn, Betty Dunkerley, Daryl Slusher, Brewster McCracken, Danny Thomas, Austin Police Department, Jo Baylor, Eric Mitchell

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