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Jim Baer: Face it, Concord: Storrs Street Extension project is a done deal



For the Monitor
Sunday, September 09, 2018

There are some immutable facts in science: Water runs downhill; the constancy of the speed of light; hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. And the Storrs Street Extension project cannot be stopped.

For over a decade, I have been a conservative voice concerning unnecessary capital intensive projects initiated by the Concord city administration and the city council. I was a fervent opponent of spending $14 million on our Main Street rehabilitation. I offer no apology for that position.

It is my belief that the city’s responsibilities should be focused on providing basic public services. Those include police and fire protection, public safety, public education, water and sewer infrastructure, and public health integrity. It is a simple concept, consistent with my views on government.

Others may disagree and believe that the city is obligated to stick its nose into expensive projects that have little to do with any of the above-mentioned responsibilities, projects that often cause our property-tax rate to escalate to a point of diminishing returns.

The city council’s plate is full. It has a city-owned golf course that runs a deficit. The once largest Concord property taxpayer, Steeplegate Mall, is shrinking like Alice after she drank from the bottle labeled “Drink Me.” It will eventually disappear. The city doesn’t have a clue about what to do with that property once the mall closes.

Our public transportation system is a joke. Empty buses can be witnessed daily driving aimlessly around Concord. People complain that they cannot afford to rent in Concord. Others cannot afford to buy homes here because of outrageous property taxes.

The city administration’s “bucket list” of capital-intensive projects that gobble up huge amounts of property-tax payers money is long and continues to grow.

The current expensive mega-project on the front burner is called the Storrs Street Extension. I call it Titanic II. This baby is a pet project designed to whisk people who are in a hurry to get from Storrs Street to the Promised Land of Commercial Street. The owners of the Titanic promised something similar.

In the process of doing that, it will make a few rich people even richer. Some are already buying property to develop in that corridor in expectation of making a lot of money.

The project makes little sense. We just spent over $14 million to rehab Main Street in an effort to protect and promote businesses on Main Street. The city now wants to divert vehicle traffic from Main Street onto Storrs Street. Not only divert traffic, but divert it to another commercial business district that will be in direct competition with some of the businesses on Main Street.

Since Main Street recently became a narrow country road with heavy traffic, many drivers have elected to use Storrs Street to circumvent Main Street. The traffic count on Storrs Street has dramatically increased.

That increased traffic load has caused several traffic bottle necks on Storrs Street. The worst one is at the foot of Theatre and Storrs Streets. It is at the confluence of Market Basket, The Granite Group, residential apartments and storage buildings. I have lost count of the number of times I had to wait while a tractor-trailer truck backed into one of those storage buildings or tried to exit from Market Basket. It will only get worse.

This project is all about greed disguised as progress.

One way or another, Concord property-tax payers will have borne the lion’s share cost of this expensive boondoggle. The city has already spent a small fortune preparing the right-of-way for the project.

I am confident that developers will manipulate the city into giving them generous tax abatements and other concessions to sweeten the pot on those new buildings. It worked well for them in the past on Main Street.

The canard they will use is that they will be promoting new jobs at new businesses and increasing the property-tax base. I think that is called “trickle down” economics. We all know how well that worked under President Reagan.

If Commercial Street is destined to become a successful magnet for commercial enterprise, then why did the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce move its offices from the Grappone Center on Commercial Street to Main Street?

Past actions on Main Street may be a model for the owners of the new buildings on Commercial Street. They may cannibalize tenants from Main Street and other downtown-area businesses to fill those new buildings.

The folks at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce may want to wait a bit longer before unpacking all of the office stuff from their old offices on Commercial Street.

In a nonscientific poll, I asked a variety of people how important it is to them to be able to quickly access Commercial Street from Storrs Street. Some responded with just a vacant expression on their face. Others couldn’t spare the time to answer – too busy trolling on their smartphones. A few couldn’t think of a single reason to go to Commercial Street. Some didn’t know where Commercial Street was located. When I added the cost of the project into the discussion, one person replied by asking me: “Wouldn’t that public money be better spent on people-friendly projects like better public transportation, more efforts on promoting affordable housing to attract young people and families to Concord, and increasing funds to help fight opioid addiction and helping homeless people?”

For once, I was at a loss for words.

The movers and shakers who have influence at city hall just keep winning. I am not sure how much more winning the Concord property-tax payers can take. Win, win, win. Spend, spend, spend. It’s a winning combination.

Water will continue to run downhill, the speed of light will remain constant and we will find better uses for hydrogen other than in bombs. Like it or not, Storrs Street is a done deal.

You can sleep well tonight knowing that your property taxes are hard at work making Concord the shining capital on the hill.

(Jim Baer lives in Concord.)