“Hotel project appears dead ...” read the headline from the Oct. 6 edition of the Commonwealth.

This is unfortunate on several levels. But first, the backstory.

A Muskego, Wis.-based developer, Lighthouse Hospitality Group, has been talking to the city since January 2012 about its plan to build a $9.5 million hotel complex downtown on the site of the blighted American House and Mapes House properties, as well as the smoke-damaged 308 Watson St.

Lighthouse is not new to the hospitality industry. It owns or manages hotels in six upper-Midwestern states ...

The hotel for Ripon is not a Boca-type scheme — no spa, no 54 suites, no $220 rooms, no Kohler comparisons, no affiliated National Republican Presidents Museum, no developer with zero experience in the hospitality industry.

It offers 60 rooms with a few suites, rates in the low $100s, an enclosed bridge over Blossom Street, 60 off-street parking spots in back, first-floor retail with space for up to four stores, accessibility to Ripon College and ownership by a group with a proven record of success in building, developing, managing and franchising hotels.

However, this hotel isn’t being proposed for a flat, empty tract of land. Because it would be on a hillside using three lots now occupied by empty, uninhabitable buildings, it would require removing existing structures and preparing the multi-level site before construction begins.

The developer presumes this would cost about $2.3 million of the $9.5 million total. It is asking the city to front it most of the pre-construction costs from tax incremental financing (TIF) ...

Lighthouse has said the city, which was badly burned by the last out-of-town developer to offer a siren song, has offered some TIF dollars to be paid out over the 27-year life of the TIF, but not nearly the $2.3 million Lighthouse seeks.

That this deal “appears dead” is disappointing because:

1. The public hasn’t had an opportunity to be privy to what’s been going on behind closed doors. ...

2. The public has had no opportunity to weigh the proposal’s costs, gains and risks. ...

3. The public can’t gage to what degree the City Council is being A. a fiscally responsible steward of taxpayers’ dollars, or B. gun shy ...

In May 2012, this newspaper editorialized that private discussions are appropriate to plot legal strategy but that “in the future the mayor, city administrator or City Council should [assure] citizens are privy to consideration of the disposition and potential payback of their tax dollars the city has entrusted with [a] developer.”

In 2009, we recommended that city officials “be as transparent as possible with taxpayers” when dancing with developers.

So far, the city has gone dark in revealing discussions with Lighthouse or any other prospective developers. Opacity was wrong with Boca dealings then. It’s wrong now.

The public deserves to know what’s in the offing, what’s at state and what’s at risk. And it shouldn’t have to hear the news from a hotelier in Muskego.

— Tim Lyke

To read the entire editorial, see the Oct. 20, 2016 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.

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