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Proposition 2 rhetoric gets louder as Early Voting gets underway

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Supporters and opponents of Proposition 2 on the Austin ballot stepped up their campaigns on Monday as early voting got underway in Travis County. Members of Stop Domain Subsidies used literature produced by Simon Property Group opposing city subsidies for a competing developer in El Paso to bolster their argument against retail subsidies in general, while members of Keep Austin’s Word warned voters that Proposition 2 could cost hurt the city’s redevelopment efforts within the Robert Mueller Neighborhood.


In El Paso, Simon has advocated against a subsidy for Foster/Regency, a competing developer working on plans for a retail center. Foster/Regency is seeking assistance to remove an existing building on the property in question.


Brian Rodgers of Stop Domain Subsidies presented literature from Simon criticizing the request, noting that many of Simon’s arguments that the city subsidy would amount to unfair competition for its existing shopping center nearby were almost the same as the case that has been made by supporters of Proposition 2.


“We’ve been saying that retail subsidies do not make sense, that they just shift sales taxes from one merchant to another, that the property tax abatements could be used better for city services, that they provide inferior jobs, that there’s no transparency, no public scrutiny, there’s less money for city services and it messes with the free market,” he said during a news conference outside City Hall. “It just so happens that those are the same things that Simon Property Group is saying in El Paso, in a situation where they are facing a competitor’s subsidies.” More than a dozen local business owners for the announcement joined Rodgers.


Simon has sent a letter to the City of Austin refuting the comparison. “The Domain is a true, urban, mixed-use lifestyle center with retail, residential, office and hotel components,” Kathleen Shields with Simon Property Group wrote in a letter to Mayor Will Wynn. “In contrast, the project in El Paso is a big box-anchored power center.” 


On Monday afternoon, Mayor Wynn stood before a group of more than 50 local business leaders and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce to warn of dire consequences if Proposition 2 is passed. “Austin would have to break its word, would have to break binding commitments that we have made,” he said. “Two agreements specifically…one at the Domain, one at the old Mueller Airport…that we judiciously negotiated would have to be broken.”


The ongoing effort to redevelop the former airport site could be sidetracked by Proposition 2, the Mayor said, since the existing agreements with the developer specifically call for tax rebates tied to retail development. “Mueller…has bonds that were sold that we told investors…the first place we’re going to look to pay back your debt is with a portion of the retail sales tax generated there on the property,” he said.


Leaders of Stop Domain Subsidies do not believe the claim that projects outside the Domain would be affected. “Mueller is a political football. It will be just fine. We have plenty of exemptions,” said Brian Rodgers. “The city could strike one paragraph in one bond agreement and take it out of the target zone. I asked a Council person ‘are they hanging Mueller around our neck like a dead cat?’ and she shook her head ‘yes’.”


Both groups timed their announcements to coincide with the start of early voting. Now that the election is just two weeks away, both supporters and opponents of Proposition 2 will be stepping up their campaigns.


Wynn told In Fact Daily the forces opposed to Proposition 2 started out the campaign as underdogs, but he believes that people who hear the arguments made by the Keep Austin’s Word political action committee will decide to vote against the amendment. He based that conclusion partly on personal experience.


He noted that during a recent trip to Whole Foods, three different people had asked him about the proposition and felt he had successfully convinced all three to vote ‘no’. Expanding that effort citywide, he said, would be a priority during the next two weeks. “The largest number of Austinites in history will be going to the polls, so it’s hard to figure out how to get out that message to about 470,000 registered voters over 280 square miles,” he said.


Proposition 2 supporters will also be making a full-court press during the next two weeks, with many of the small-business owners who gathered signatures to get the proposition on the ballot making face-to-face appeals to their customers.

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