Mayors Have to Pay to Play
Now that we’re up to speed on the Gap Settlement’s backstory, let’s take a closer look at our main theme – Fresno City Hall’s struggle to come up with a coherent policy for giving public subsidies to the private sector.
It wasn’t lost on Fresno’s political junkies two decades ago that Patterson, father of the Gap-airport land transfer, loved to portray himself as the conservative watchdog of the taxpayers’ money.
And, truth be told, Patterson in his lone four-year term as strong mayor often did fight against what his supporters might have called crony capitalism. For example, Patterson threw cold water on a local developer’s vision for Roeding Business Park in West Fresno because he didn’t like the idea of government abusing its eminent domain authority for the benefit of a well-heeled businessman.
Patterson’s unyielding stand nearly cost him his job. Critics in the local business community mounted a recall effort in 1998. The effort collapsed before things got to the ballot box, but Patterson wouldn’t be human if the bitter drama failed to leave a psychic scar.
However, Patterson’s most memorable battle against public subsidies for private investors was the downtown stadium. The City Council in October 2000 voted 5-2 to build the nearly $50 million stadium (now called Chukchansi Park) with taxpayer money. Patterson vetoed the council’s decision, but a council super majority overrode the veto. Patterson warned that the city was building too much stadium and incurring too much debt for the sake of the Fresno Grizzlies’ owner. Events proved Patterson right.
Still, it was the Gap land deal that was City Hall’s template (you’ve got to give up a lot to get something valuable in return) for business subsidies when, in January 2001, Alan Autry succeeded Patterson in the mayor’s office.
We never got to see details of Autry’s three biggest public-private partnerships because he never pulled them off. I’m talking about the Bass Pro courtship, the Forest City-South Stadium project and the Donald Trump-Running Horse extravaganza. We can safely assume all three in one fashion or another would have cost the public purse a pretty penny.
But we do have details from two memorable deals from the Autry era – Granite Park and the Metropolitan Museum. Both centered on City Hall guarantees of multi-million-dollar bank loans to nonprofits with strong connections to major players in Fresno’s for-profit world. Both loans went south. Taxpayers (and the general fund) are still paying on the bonds issued to repay the loans.