Developmental Education: Serving Time on the Board of the Downtown Development Authority

This is the first post by Newcombe Clark on the subject of downtown development. Newcombe ran for Ann Arbor City Council as an Independent candidate this past Fall, and A2Politico did an interview with him about his political aspirations. He is also a partner in the Moravian project, a development that was proposed for a West side Ann Arbor neighborhood, to which neighbors objected to and for which City Council eventually refused to grant permission as a Planned Unit Development Project (PUD). In 2006, he was recognized as one of the “20 in their 20s” inaugural class by Crain’s Detroit Business for his professional and philanthropic contributions. He holds a BA Japanese Language And Culture and a BSE Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He is working toward his MBA at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He is currently a Board Member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA), Ann Arbor SymphonyUniversity of Michigan Museum of ArtMichigan Theater, and the University of Michigan Confucius Institute. He has described himself as an “Ann Arbor Super Fan.” He’ll be writing twice a month on issues relating to real estate development within Ann Arbor (among other things).

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Mark Twain said that and I dig it.

It’s an acknowledgement that facts are more often the possession of the powerful, than of the accurate. It’s of course ironic that Twain, a man of power, of influence, and of words, often used his own fabrications and manipulations to write history as fluid as he himself saw fit, including his condemnation of others who did the same.

“Trust me, because powerful people lie to you,” is an interesting thing powerful people say to influence the malleable. It’s interesting, and effective. It worked for Twain, and is to this day a technique often utilized by punditry on both sides; be you a Glen Beck, a John Stewart, or in our hyper-local sphere, an A2Politico.

So it is with trepidation, and with respect, that I bring you my first column. There’s a lot we can cover as long as we are patient with one another and respectful of differing opinions. If nothing else, please trust that I’ll be as truthful as I see fit. I’m 18 months into my first, and probably only, 4-year term. There has been a lot of speculation around the circumstances of how I, a 30 year old man-child who appears to often suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, came to be appointed to the Madonna of all city boards. No, the DDA is not a diva, but yes, she is rich, misunderstood, and secretly believes life is better in Europe than in our native Metro Detroit.

I thought I would use my first few digital inches to go over a few common mis- (and spot-on-) conceptions surrounding the board that may have “Development” as a middle name, but has little consensus on the meaning or purpose of the word.

False/Truth #1:The DDA is rich…and it is broke. My guess is you believe one or the other. The truth is that we are both. We run on a relatively large annual budget (approximately $20 million), with revenue streams coming from both tax capture and from the parking system that we lease from the City. But a big budget does not a rich board make. Yes, there are some reserves, which we try to keep flush enough to mitigate risk (mainly around the unforeseen that comes with properly managing a lot of heavily used public assets), and there are some discretionary funds, that we dole out mostly in the forms of grants to pet projects and the more skilled lobbyists in our community. For the most part however, what comes in goes right back out the door. The drama you may have heard about recently is the small amount of the DDA’s money that we do have to play with each year ($2-$3 million). The city wants all of it to plug general fund deficits; the DDA wants to keep some of it so we have something to do other than meet and stare at one another every Wednesday morning. I urge you all to relax on this rather minor drama.  If Ann Arbor gets all the cash the parking structures won’t crumble and our downtown won’t be overrun with Angry Birds. If the DDA gets to keep a bit of it, your trash won’t start to pile up and your firefighters won’t have to start selling risqué calendars to keep their engines running. Anything you hear otherwise is just chest-puffing and dirt-scratching. A couple of months from now we should be past this and on to our next opportunity to posture in the Press.

False/Truth #2: A successful downtown needs the DDA…and it doesn’t. The feelings of self-importance aside, the fact remains that our urban core would be just fine without the DDA. Cities rarely die, unless of course, God sees fit to weigh in…and even then it’s usually just a temporary return to zero. That being said, do I think the DDA does good, measurable work? Absolutely. But do I also think people would figure out how to get by without us over time? You bet. Anybody who saw what Main Street’s Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) did in short order with last week’s “Snow-mageddon” can easily see that there is now a younger, more nimble player at the table. For all our money and power the DDA can’t keep the sidewalks plowed (let alone repaired) as effectively as this quirky upstart can. It’s worth mentioning however that the initial funding for the BIZ was something the DDA did pay for. We may no longer wield the power of the plow…but we still, for now, are the keepers of the cheque book.

False/Truth #3: The DDA is transparent…and it’s not. Yes, its true, all sorts of shenanigans go on behind the scenes at the DDA. Like in every good family and reality show contest, secrets are kept to be revealed and alliances are made to be broken. To which I say, “so what?” If you want everything done in the open all the time you’re not going to see anything get done ever. The world has a place for idealists; it’s called a crib. I will say though that the public gets a greater gander at our dirty laundry than they do of most other boards. Part of that is because we’re politicized, and part of that is because of my aforementioned foot-in-mouth affliction. For which I say in equal parts, “I’m sorry, and you’re welcome.”

False/Truth #4: Speaking of politics. The DDA is politicized…and it’s not. Look at the board make up and you’ll see a bunch of current and rehabilitated politicians. You’ll also see a bunch of small business owners and professionals who truly care about making a better downtown. Too often, I find that we blame politics as the reason we on the board act or don’t act on something. We’re political appointees, but not elected officials. We answer to the public and we don’t. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but until we as citizens demand it changed, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the continued imperfections. I may have been appointed for political reasons over professional qualifications, and some of you may disagree with those reasons. It’s worth pointing out though that when I was appointed nobody showed up to praise or to protest. Change only comes when the status quo ceases to be unacceptable. For better or for worse, the majority of us in Ann Arbor seem okay with the way thing are going. Until that stops being the case, those who complain are just wearing out their armchairs…and their keyboards. Let’s keep that in mind and let’s keep this conversation going.

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=5760

1 Comment for “Developmental Education: Serving Time on the Board of the Downtown Development Authority”

  1. Yes, Newcombe, you are refreshingly/outrageously candid in remarks there and elsewhere. Thank you (I can’t be the one to forgive).

    I’ve been attending DDA committee meetings again and I must say those are very open and much good discussion goes on there. As governmental organizations go, the DDA is pretty open, in my opinion.

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