Editor’s note: this opinion piece was originally published in the Redding Record Searchlight.
Here’s something to remember the next time you read about the parolee arrested on Redding streets for the 30th time. Or when you see the plywood bandage on the broken window of your favorite downtown restaurant. Or, God forbid, when your car is stolen.
Remember this: We will soon have a half-million-dollar “Garden of Lights” courtesy of your City Council. That should make us all feel better.
The idea, and request for $500,000, was spawned by the Redding Chamber of Commerce and the Redding City Identity Project, an initiative to, among other things, improve the “quality of life of the people who live in Redding.” The project is “an opportunity to tell our story: it will establish our city’s image and reputation by defining who we are and intentionally building toward what we will become,” its website says.
That’s all good stuff of course, and so, from hundreds of ideas from the public, a list of 20 was chosen, including the “Garden of Lights,” which will be constructed in the Arboretum of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. It is patterned after others sprinkled throughout the United States that delight locals and attract visitors during the holiday months. According to a preliminary design paid for by the Chamber, the initial price tag for this new piece of identity would be $500,000. This clearly is not in the same league as your cousin Harvey’s front yard holiday light display. But then again, we’re talking about an identity here, and those apparently don’t come cheap.
By a 4-1 vote, the City Council gobbled up Mayor Julie Winter’s proposal that the City divert $250,000 of transient occupancy tax (TOT) revenue each of the next two years to allow Turtle Bay to create the attraction. TOT is money paid by visitors staying in city hotels and totaled nearly $7 million this past fiscal year. Most goes into the City’s general fund for things like cops, firefighters and roadwork. A little over $1 million is paid to the Convention and Visitors Bureau under a contract to promote tourism — something it has done exceedingly well despite the Great Recession and the Carr Fire. Thus, the Council’s action will cut nearly a quarter out of whatever is paid to the operator of the CVB in the next two years, reducing its ability to continue increasing TOT.
While the others gushed about the idea, lone dissenting Council member Michael Dacquisto rightly noted that the request came with no budget, business plan or pro forma, and no evidence that private funds had been sought before grabbing for the public purse. And he’s correct that while the proposed funding comes from tourism, it is still general fund money and technically can be used for any purpose — not just tourism. In fact, TOT is the third-highest source of revenue for the City’s general fund, and it’s virtually all paid by out-of-towners. That’s the best deal you’ll see this side of free flu shots.
When was the last time the City handed a half-million dollars to a non-profit, no questions asked? Kool April Nites? Big Bike Weekend? Multi-day youth sports tournaments? Not a chance, and these are events that have proven to bring thousands of tourists to our hotels for many years. They are doing good to receive City traffic control and other support, let alone a $500,000 gift.
Council members see a nexus between the Garden of Lights and tourism. True, but here’s another nexus: crime and tourism. Visitors tend to stay away when they worry about their cars being broken into in a hotel parking lot. Or having to fear city parks because of the parolees. Or avoiding downtown because of transients.
Our community — solid law-minding Redding residents — has been frustrated and angry over the quality of life issues in their neighborhoods, their downtown, their businesses. Despite a heroic effort by the Police Department to stay on top of things, everyone agrees more must be done. If the City has “free money,” which the Council seems to think this is, it ought to go to solving these problems first and foremost. That applies to every penny, from discretionary TOT revenue to the nickels in the City Hall fountain.
Sadly Redding’s quality of life has lost its luster, and, as much as we hate it, that is our identity right now. Throwing half a million dollars at a Garden of Lights won’t make it any brighter.
Greg Clark is a longtime Redding resident. He is a former journalist and the retired Redding deputy city manager.