Issue July 13, 2010

Jerry’s kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

Whenever a conversation about the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project rears its ugly head in the race for mayor of Louisville, Democrat Greg Fischer does a good job of bobbing and weaving.

In a recent interview on 84 WHAS radio, the Louisville businessman took the recumbent position when asked about tolling as a means to pay for the behemoth public works project, which includes building an East End bridge, a downtown bridge and re-configuring Spaghetti Junction.

“Let’s see what it’s going to cost, let’s see what the final recommendation comes to before we really burn a lot a mental calories,” Fischer told radio personality Mandy Connell. “There’s a lot of people that are excited about something that may not occur.”

Critics of the project are troubled by the suggestion that citizens should wait and see while the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority moves forward, particularly given recent developments in the bridges discussion.

Earlier this month, for instance, The Courier-Journal quoted Steve Schultz, executive director of the bi-state authority, who said there was a “very good” likelihood the plan would include tolls. The bridges authority already has mailed a letter to federal highway administrators to see about the legality of tolling all bridges in the area to help pay for the bridges project.

Although there was talk of the authority possibly unveiling a final financial plan sometime this summer, a spokeswoman with the bi-state authority points out that they have until the end of the year to deliver a payment plan.

That means the mayoral election could come and go before a financing plan is in place, giving candidates — namely Fischer — an easy out by allowing continued ambiguity on tolls. The campaign, however, contends it’s irresponsible to comment on a plan that doesn’t exist.

“Once we know what the financing options are, then we can have a discussion about if this makes sense for our community or not,” says Chris Poynter, a Fischer campaign spokesman. “Greg has said, ‘Nobody likes tolls, but it looks as though tolls will be a part of the project, and if we have to use them we think they should be as small as possible.’”

Last month, Republican mayoral candidate and Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, R-19, Fischer’s chief opponent, said scaling back the project should be an option if paying for it includes tolls exceeding $2. It’s a statement that intrigued anti-tolling organizers who hope to be a swing vote in the general election.

“We’re not too concerned about burning mental calories around here. We believe that’s what a campaign is all about,” says Joe Burgan, Heiner’s campaign manager. “Specifically, on the bridges project, we’ve made it very clear that Hal supports the record of decision and that does not include tolls.”

The Heiner campaign also is troubled that a financing plan could be pushed back until after the election.

Independent mayoral candidate Jackie Green says discussions about paying for the bridges project should be at the forefront of the debate to give voters a chance to weigh all of the candidates and their ideas.

“Fischer needs to burn more calories addressing the financial plan, definitely,” Green says. “Right now, it’s a multi-billion dollar project that neglects the fact that Louisville needs to catch up to other cities in terms of public transit. Louisville needs a world-class system that will serve our employees, our consumers and
our children.”

The cycling advocate is sticking with his position that the juggernaut project should be shelved and the money would be better spent reinvesting in the city’s public transportation system. Green has encouraged both candidates to adopt pieces from his platform, which makes public transit a higher priority.

•••

Louisville developer and film producer Gill Holland has stepped into an ongoing fight over the string of historic cast-iron buildings along Main Street known as the Iron Quarter, hoping to preserve the 19th-century structures.

Holland tells LEO Weekly he’s been in conversations with developer Todd Blue, of Cobalt Ventures, about buying the buildings or, at the very least, forging a partnership.

“I’m just trying to get a deal together that gets that part of Main Street developed and preserves the Iron Quarter,” he says. “Louisville has these beautiful buildings, which are the (second-highest concentration of) cast-iron buildings in any city in America. It’s highly visible, it’s part of our history, and it seems like I’m the type of person who should be involved.”

Around the city, Holland is well known for being behind rapid development in the Nulu District along East Market Street, where he is a partner in the Green Building, which houses a contemporary art space, multiple event rooms, a restaurant and offices.

At this point, Holland isn’t sure if his pitch to Cobalt will be successful, but he’s trying to put a group of potential buyers together. He tells LEO that the ballpark purchase price being discussed is just under $15 million.

A representative with Cobalt Ventures could not be reached for comment.

For the past two months, area preservationists, the city and Blue have been engaged in an increasingly tense fight over the Iron Quarter.

In May, Cobalt asked the city for permission to raze the debilitated structures after a private engineer determined they were a safety hazard. In turn, local preservationists launched a grassroots movement to save the buildings. The city has since deemed the buildings historic landmarks, making it less likely they will be demolished.

Although Blue has filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court seeking permission to demolish the structures, claiming they represent a public safety hazard, he also has proposed a plan that would preserve the historic facades while allowing him to tear down and then rebuild the rear portions of the buildings.

Hoping to be a “pro-preservationist developer,” Holland is disappointed in the stalemate, but believes the city and Blue have options.

“I would like some sort of long-term investment and commitment,” says Holland. “Somebody needs to shore those buildings up.”