Cookies in the cupboard. Pie in the oven. Ice cream in the freezer. Dessert as a bribe has always been one of the staples of parenting, and a controversial one at that.
Syracuse and Onondaga County are frequently at the table, not with recalcitrant children refusing to open their mouths for veggies, but with eager businesses sitting on their wallets, tapping their fingers, waiting for the deal to sweeten. The city and the county, and their respective economic development proxies, find themselves practicing all manner of bribery with prospective developers to entice them to do something, anything, in our town.
Most recently came before us the case of the relocation of the Syracuse University bookstore to University Avenue, a venture rewarded by the city with a 30-year tax break that came along with a now-familiar term, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). To opponents of the deal it was the ghost of Destiny USA all over again.
Supporters of this newest PILOT tried to make the best of it, exhibiting that now-familiar sheepish shrug of the insecure, pimple-faced adolescent at the dance. Their argument was that SU could build the bookstore itself and pay no taxes, so this deal, involving the private investor Cameron Group, would at least get the city something. Once again our overmatched representatives seem to be telling us that this is the best we can do, so why not dance with this one?
Freshly minted South Side councilor Khalid Bey showed himself to be a quick study at the art of the deal by wrangling a few gym memberships for city youth (the bookstore will have a fitness center attached) and the promise of construction jobs for local minority contractors before voting to pass the agreement. We’ll see how well those promises hold up.
The tax deal, which passed 5-4 at a special session of the Common Council on July 9, left some of us wondering a couple of things. One, will there even be such a thing as a bookstore in 30 years? Two, did anyone in City Hall notice that a privately owned bookstore catering to students had just gone out of business right there on University Avenue, two blocks from where the new one is set to be built next year?
Follett’s Orange Book Store, long a tenant at Marshall Square Mall (another SU-owned profit center), closed its doors earlier this year. Which means that, in the name of spurring private enterprise, the city has given a tax break to a bookstore monopoly after its patron, the university itself, helped drive its only competitor off the SU Hill. And this is somehow meant to encourage private sector development? Sounds more like rearranging the flowers in a vase than planting anything new.
There is one game in town, however, that appears well positioned to attract new investment in our fair city, and at no risk to the taxpayers. I refer here to the Dan Maffei-Ann Marie Buerkle franchise, a highly profitable venture now in its second season, which appears to have stamina and the ability to attract investors from far and wide.
Recent reports indicate that the dynamic duo have teamed up to draw in $1.4 million in funds, much of it from outside the region. Seventy-five percent of Buerkle’s cash and a full 80 percent of Maffei’s has come from outside the 25th Congressional District. A lot of it appears to come from big city donors in Washington, D.C., and New York. I call them PILODs: Payment in Lieu of Democracy.
Give credit where it is due: Maffei and Buerkle have done this all on a shoestring. If we are to believe their published reports, the pair spent a combined total of barely $25,000 on their fundraising ventures, an investment that has returned more than 50-1 to the region. For all their differences on policy, it must be said that the two of them have proved adept at milking the new campaign environment—established in last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning Citizens United—for all it is worth.
Those bucket loads of outside money can be spent now to print lawn signs, make robocalls, buy television ads and otherwise annoy the general public. What a winner for our region.
Now we the voters have to do our part. In 2010, we managed to keep this race among the tightest in the country, and assured ourselves of national attention for the rematch. It’s up to us to make sure we keep it tight again. The 25th District (set to be changed to the 24th after Election Day, a result of redistricting) could be known as the most hotly contested congressional race in the country for years to come, and we can just sit back and watch the money roll in.
We can get 30 years out of this? Maybe, just maybe. t
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.