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Davenport Gives Its Citizens a Lesson in How to Not Gather Public Input PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 03 May 2005 18:00
At the first session for public input on the proposed Rhythm City Casino hotel and parking ramp on the riverfront, Clayton Lloyd greeted roughly 400 attendees with candor. “We’re very pleased and somewhat overwhelmed at the response,” said Lloyd, Davenport’s director of community and economic development.

“Somewhat overwhelmed” is an understatement, but it counts as blunt for Lloyd, who always chooses his words carefully. The fact is that the organizers of the two-hour forum, at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the RiverCenter, were woefully unprepared for the mass of people. After 40 minutes of presentations, the meeting devolved into a disorganized and uncontrolled free-for-all from which no credible assessment of public views could come.

Beyond that, the actual “public input” section of the meeting was seemingly designed to produce no useful information. Chan Krieger & Associates, which was hired for $31,500 to organize and run the meeting, gave small groups seven questions to answer, but they never even came close to asking the most important one: Do the citizens of Davenport support allowing Rhythm City to build a hotel and parking garage on this particular piece of city-owned riverfront?

The “findings” of two input sessions – the other was held Monday night – were scheduled to be released Tuesday evening, after the Reader went to press. But because of fundamentally flawed planning and execution, citizens would be wise to look at those results with a great deal of skepticism. The show that the city and its consultants put on in the midday session Monday cannot possibly produce a meaningful evaluation of what the public thinks of this project.

Rhythm City Casino and its owner, Isle of Capri, have proposed a $43.1-million expansion on the riverfront, including an 11-story hotel and an adjacent parking building. The casino would contribute $37 million of that cost, with the city paying for the $6.1-million parking ramp. Construction bonds would be re-paid through a long-term lease with the Isle of Capri. Furthermore, the Isle of Capri is asking for $7 million in tax rebates over time.

But you’d never know that there was a concrete proposal based on the questions Chan Krieger & Associates asked of small groups. The seven questions read like they were drawn from a general riverfront planning process, dealing with the city’s historic resources, access to the river, view corridors, flooding, land uses and structure height, water uses, and the river experience. All are valid questions, but they should have been part of the overarching River Vision process, not a highly compressed session dealing with a very specific land-use proposal for which architectural drawings have already been created.

Granted, organizers shouldn’t simply be making a head count of supporters and opponents of the proposal; they need to try to understand why people feel how they do. But the questions posed by Chan Krieger & Associates were maddeningly vague.

A more-direct, thoughtful, and incisive set of questions was offered by Richard C. Ward, of St. Louis-based Development Strategies. Before the public component of the session, he raised four issues, which I’m paraphrasing:

• What is the contribution of the casino to the city’s economy?

• How important are the hotel and parking garage to securing and expanding the casino’s competitiveness and contribution to the city’s economy?

• If there were no casino, would the riverfront hotel and parking garage be economic assets or liabilities?

• What alternative uses are appropriate for the riverfront – residential, business, open/park space, or cultural/civic – and what are their feasibilities, benefits, and costs?

But Ward offered no analysis of or answers to those questions, and the public wasn’t asked to address them during its breakout sessions.

And, fundamentally, Ward’s list also failed to address a pair of interconnected but critical issues: Is this proposal the best use of this land for the citizens of Davenport? And if it isn’t, what alternative sites can the city offer Rhythm City that might address the needs and interests of both the casino and Davenport?

This failure to ask the most-relevant question might be more forgivable if the entire process didn’t seem designed to obfuscate and confuse the conversation, and skew the results in favor of the proposed Rhythm City expansion. For instance, during the presentation phase, Iowa Gaming Association President Wes Ehrecke gave a short speech in support of the hotel project.But no opponent of the downtown-riverfront hotel/parking garage was invited to speak. Alan Egly of SmartRiverfront.com, which opposes the casino expansion at the proposed site, stood up and said to the consultants: “It appears there is a bias in the presentation.”

Furthermore, when the session segued into public participation, chaos reigned. One audience member asked that Isle of Capri employees identify themselves – a fair request, considering that their perspectives are undoubtedly colored by bald self-interest – yet the moderators made no effort to address the issue, claiming they wanted everybody’s opinion.

And the small-group sessions were disastrous. Because of the turnout, the groups were unmanageable, and there weren’t enough moderators to ensure the process went smoothly. The group I witnessed, moderated by Kathy Wine of River Action, didn’t even make it through all seven questions and was so large that it was impossible to even hear what participants were saying.

What was truly appalling about the meeting was that Davenport has shown time after time that it can conduct meaningful public-input sessions. Whether for the city budget or development of city-owned land at 53rd Street and Eastern Avenue, Davenport at the end asks the most basic question – What do you want? – with clearly laid-out options. Citizens are given stickers, and express their opinions by placing them on the alternative or alternatives they support.

It’s simple, direct, and measurable. Complicated issues are reduced to their essence, and the city knows where everybody stands.

Based on this week’s sessions, it appears that’s something the City of Davenport doesn’t care about when it comes to the hotel and parking-garage proposal.
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