Town real estate purchase scrutinized

Urban renewal authority buys Parker Water building

The Parker Authority for Reinvestment, an organization formed by elected town officials, is purchasing the Parker Water and Sanitation District’s headquarters at Mainstreet and Victorian Drive. The authority uses property tax gains to fund improvements within a small district encompassing downtown Parker. Courtesy photo
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A decision by town leaders to purchase land in downtown Parker and resell it to a buyer of their choosing has raised questions about the appropriate use of taxpayer money.

The Town of Parker announced March 27 that the Parker Authority for Reinvestment, an entity created by town council in 2006 to eliminate blight and revitalize the downtown area, approved a resolution to acquire the Parker Water and Sanitation District headquarters on the northeast corner of Mainstreet and Victorian Drive.

The water district is consolidating administrative operations into its facility near E-470 and South Parker Road. The headquarters building was once used as the Parker Library.

The resolution, which passed unanimously during a meeting March 17, enables PAR to buy the building and the acre of land on which it sits for $865,000, plus closing costs. But a handful of Parker residents see a potential conflict of interest because town council doubles as the Parker Authority for Reinvestment’s board of directors, and the majority of council members work in downtown Parker.

“If you look at these people, where they’re located and where they’re buying property, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” said John Sutherland, who lives in Canterberry Crossing. “It appears that the town is getting into the land speculation and development business.”

Sutherland pointed out that Mayor Mike Waid’s office is directly across the street from the site and Councilmember Joshua Rivero owns a coffee shop two blocks away. Because town council appointed itself as the urban renewal board, it’s like the “fox watching the henhouse,” he said.

Urban renewal districts use tax-increment financing to address dilapidation and deterioration and make improvements to business facades and infrastructure. The value of property within the district is documented. That base value is then compared to future property assessments, and the urban renewal district collects a portion of property tax revenues generated by the incremental increases in valuation.

The mission of PAR is to “encourage investment and reinvestment within targeted areas of the community in an effort to enhance and preserve the town’s vitality.” The town’s news release, issued after PAR’s approval of the deal, characterized the Parker Water property as a “prime” site.

“A primary purpose in the creation of the Parker Central Area Urban renewal district was to facilitate redevelopment of underutilized sites,” it said. “PAR can facilitate private sector redevelopment of the property consistent with community vision and current East Mainstreet development trends.”

Purchase within the guidelines

Waid, who serves as chairman of the PAR board, said the acquisition does not violate any laws or deviate from the guidelines that govern authority actions. He dismissed assertions that members of council stand to gain financially or otherwise from the deal.

Parker resident Dave Usechek, who served in public office for six years prior to moving to town, said he opposes having town council serve in two capacities and said there is “enough talent in Parker” to avoid overlapping interests.

“I feel the council has tunnel vision on their goals and having a separate board may provide newer ideas to sustain the downtown concept,” Usechek said.

Usechek is not against the purchase of the PWSD building and land, but said PAR should have an interested buyer before spending taxpayer money. Other residents are applauding the move as a step in the right direction.

“I am for it,” said Todd Hendreks, an active member of the community. “If they can help bridge the gaps to (the) PACE (Center)… all the better. We need more hang-out spots in Parker.”

While PAR markets the property for redevelopment, the building will be leased on an interim basis to provide offices for the town’s economic development department and associated functions to “create a one-stop business assistance office,” the town’s news release says.

Waid said the purchase is viewed as an “opportunity to potentially add more value to the downtown district by helping to cultivate development.” When asked why government intervention in real estate is preferred to the whims of the free market, Waid said there is concern that the land could be developed in a manner inconsistent with the vision for downtown.

Sutherland said town council already has final say on what is built because it determines zoning, but Councilmember Josh Martin said development of the property is a “use by right,” meaning if a submitted project is within the zoning guidelines, elected officials cannot deny the application. Buying the land — much like the town did with Pine Curve, 24 acres of vacant land across from town hall — gives leaders more decision-making power.

“We don’t view it as picking winners and losers. We view it as looking out for the best interest of the town as a whole,” Waid said.

The site, which Martin said is “underutilized,” is ideal for vertical mixed-use development, similar to the Parker Station building across the street.

No announcement prior to approval

Aside from the legal requirement to post the PAR meeting agenda on the Town of Parker website and outside the front entrance of town hall, there was no announcement about the purchase prior to approval. Waid said the town did not give more notice because “this wasn’t viewed by anyone as something that would potentially be controversial.”

But any large financial transaction should be open to public scrutiny, said Sutherland, who opposed Parker’s decision last year to add a $2 million expenditure to the 2013 budget to buy land across from town hall. It was later announced that a new Parker Library would be built on the land.

“If they’re going to start buying up property, they need to have a plan and tell everybody they’re going to do it,” he said. “It needs to be well-publicized.”

While he appreciates the mayor’s enthusiasm in building up the downtown district, Parker resident Steve Gruenler said “spending tax dollars on purchasing or building non-core essential projects is a waste of resources.”

In the past, South Metro Fire Rescue Authority Chief Dan Qualman has vehemently opposed the districts because he says taxpayer money is diverted away from emergency services and into the pockets of developers and business owners. He was not available for comment.

The Parker Water deal is the first purchase of property by PAR, which previously spent funds on upgrades to businesses and infrastructure. Martin said the closing is scheduled for August. It is likely that the existing 6,700-square-foot building will be demolished after the economic development department moves out.