The Decatur City Council made two difficult decisions Monday. Both required that council members place their desire to improve the city over political expediency.
In a single meeting, the council members had to consider two expensive and controversial projects. One involved a decision to move forward on possible renovations of the railroad depot on Vine Street Northwest. The other involved a tentative financial commitment to the Sweetwater development in the Decatur-annexed portion of Limestone County.
It would have been easier for City Council to nix both proposals. Many constituents wasted no time in complaining about spendthrift politicians.
The renovation of the railroad depot will cost about $2.5 million, but the city’s share is much less. The Sweetwater development requires a combination of incentives and tax abatements that come to $40 million.
The decisions were difficult because they are so easily attacked. The railroad depot is an eyesore; why invest so much money into it? Bass Pro Shops, the apparent anchor of the Sweetwater development, will enjoy a ridiculous taxpayer-financed windfall.
Council members knew the complaints would be loud and bitter.
We regret the likely political fallout, because both decisions reflected courage.
While the total price tag on the purchase and restoration of the 112-year-old railroad depot is steep, the city will be responsible for only a portion of the debt service.
The building also will provide needed space for the police department, reducing other city costs.
The renovated depot will complement a lengthy, expensive and successful effort to revitalize downtown Decatur. By preserving historic buildings and encouraging private investment, city leaders have transformed a ghost town into a pedestrian-friendly city hub.
City leaders began investing in the Decatur-annexed portion of Limestone County more than a quarter century ago. They knew the busy intersection of Interstates 65 and 565 created commercial value.
What no one anticipated was that it would take so long for development to take place.
Taxpayers understandably wish City Council was bargaining with developers from a position of strength. Twenty-six years of commercially fallow land, however, undermine any pretense that the city has the upper hand.
For years, Decatur has suffered from a constant drain of its residents’ dollars — including sales taxes — to Madison County. This development, just west of the Madison County border, has the potential of reversing the trend. City Council members expressed frustration at the benefits the anchor store will enjoy, but wisely looked at the more substantial benefits that will accrue to Decatur residents.
There was little advantage to City Council members in voting to allow either the Sweetwater or railroad depot projects to go forward. They decided the long-term benefits to the community outweighed the political attacks they will endure.
Even those who disagree with the wisdom of their decisions should respect them for their political courage.
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