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Community gets fine addition – and a lesson

Published: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

When Dixon’s Riverfront Commission met in mid-March 2007, much of the funding for the proposed Heritage Crossing was still uncertain.

Design plans, actual construction, and the commission’s various add-on amenities had pushed the projected cost of the riverfront development to more than $5 million.

“That money won’t be in the bank by the time we want to start the project,” Chairman Larry Reed said then.

More than 6 years later, that money still isn’t in the bank.

Six months before the riverfront improvement was dedicated in the summer of 2009, Reed was still talking about his commission’s funding of the work: “If we don’t raise another dime, the city would be holding the bag, but that’s certainly not what we’re anticipating at all.”

A year later – and 6 months after the dedication – Reed acknowledged the ongoing shortfall. “After the final construction costs, we may be ... almost $1.5 million short,” he said at that time.

Throughout all of the planning, fundraising and construction, the “understanding” was clear: the project would be paid for with federal and state grants, with the balance coming from private donations obtained by the Riverfront Commission. When money was needed up front in 2007 to get work moving, the commission thought about borrowing money that it clearly intended to repay.

“The commission is considering asking the city for a loan, which it will pay back as donations come in,” this newspaper reported on March 14, 2007. “How much the loan would be for and at what interest rate has yet to be determined; that probably will [be] discussed at the next commission meeting, ... Reed said.”

Despite the “understanding” that Dixon taxpayers would not be on the hook for costs that the Riverfront Commission couldn’t cover, it became increasingly clear that there was no alternative. Private fundraising never matched the optimistic expectations.

And, as reporter Derek Barichello reported in last weekend’s edition, no “understanding” about who would pay the bill was ever put into writing. His review of minutes from meetings of the City Council and the commission found no record of any formal agreement between those two entities.

Today, the city still has not been reimbursed for more than $1 million that it has put into the project. What’s next?

“I think the city should move on,” Mayor Jim Burke told Barichello. “How do you draw a line between the Riverfront and the city?

“The city owns the whole thing. If the commission is able to raise money for it, that’s fine, but as I see it, it’s worth every penny.”

That might be so. Heritage Crossing is certainly a fine addition to the community, taking advantage of the attraction that the Rock River can be as it flows through downtown Dixon.

But as comments from the Riverfront Commission chairman over the years made clear, the intent was to spare Dixon’s taxpayers from any expense. Community support and donations for the project were solicited on that premise.

And no one, it appears, ever actively promoted those plans with a clear caveat that the city was guaranteeing funding with local tax money.

We are rehashing the history of this project not to point fingers or to assign blame, but to relate a cautionary tale – for city officials as well as taxpayers. You know what they say about the fate of people who ignore history.

This becomes an issue because some local leaders have a vision for further downtown development of the riverfront. In fact, a new 5-year plan envisions boat docks, a riverfront walk from Peoria to Madison, a pedestrian bridge over the river. ...

We must assume that we all have learned something about such projects – specifically, about the funding for such dreams, about the transparency with which those dreams are planned, and about the honesty with which they are promoted to the public.

Citizens who advocate reform of the city’s commission form of government might suggest that the riverfront’s million-dollar shortfall is another example of naive and inexperienced administration of local government functions – the kind that led to a more costly embarrassment for the city, as well as smaller examples of misfeasance.

Let us hope that as we enjoy the recreational and promotional benefits of Heritage Crossing, city officials – with the full knowledge of taxpayers – will pursue new and related projects with eyes wide open to the realities of private involvement in public works projects.

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