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Nov. 11, 2004


Sense, sensibilities


My home phone rang very early last Thursday. It was Rob Arkley calling from New York on a business trip. A staunch Republican, he was obviously still celebrating the victory of President Bush and the defeat of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), two causes he had invested in heavily. I reminded him that a) I'm a Democrat, licking my wounds, and b) I'm not really fond of big money coming from out of state by either major party to influence a local election, even one with such national importance. Call me naïve about big league politics, but I think South Dakotans should pick their own senator. Campaign financing reform is sorely needed.

He wasn't calling to gloat, however. He was calling to chew me out for last week's cover story on his pending purchase of the Balloon Track and the city's abrupt change of heart about doing a master plan on the property. He said he hadn't had time to read the article (it was not yet available online) but he had heard about the following quote accompanying the rather poor-quality photograph of him: "If you're me," Arkley said, "do you really care what the city thinks? I don't want to have an alternate plan out there because it might not be what I want."

But why was he upset? I asked. First of all, it was a good piece of journalism, revealing how the Eureka City Council -- on a 4-1 vote with Chris Kerrigan scratching his head, wondering what the heck happened -- did a complete 180 on a course of action it had been following for a year and a half. Second, the quote expressed exactly how he feels, in his own charmingly blunt words. Finally, at the risk of alienating a few more of my liberal friends this week, I agree with him -- so far at least -- on the Balloon Track, if not on politics.

I am a business owner and therefore a capitalist, I suppose. I believe in the free market system. I think entrepreneurs are born with a talent, one that I admire. It's not true that given seed capital, anyone can start and run a successful business. I studied macro- and microeconomics in college with a few business courses thrown in. I do not think ALL corporations are evil, only a few of them. And, like my Republican friends, I value other business people who have to meet a payroll every two weeks. I think people who spend their working lives on a government paycheck and even employees of private companies don't fully appreciate the pressures of owning a business. So, call me a liberal Democrat with Republican sensibilities.

The Balloon Track is private property. The city, on behalf of the public, has a right to determine its use by zoning the property, and on rare occasions such as this, to change the zoning. Sometimes the public will chip in money on a potential development where there is an overriding public benefit. The city's intent of studying the property, as I understand it, was to help spur cleanup and development, to make the property more attractive to a potential developer, and in that regard it would have been money well spent.

They didn't need to. All those issues were made moot when the owner found a buyer willing to assume the risk, one who is capable of undertaking the chore of cleanup with its unknown price tag. The city and the public still hold the ace of spades: The land is zoned for public use, and any plan will go thorough public scrutiny and will have to meet review by the always-tough Coastal Commission.

One footnote about the Arkleys: I have every reason to believe that their plans for the Balloon Track will be an asset to the whole community -- and no, not a big box retailer, or we would be all over them like we were Wal-Mart.

Why do I trust them to do a good job? Because of their track record: Look at the zoo, the boardwalk, the Eureka High pool, the Sweasey Theater, the Vance Hotel and other historically significant buildings now reborn. Look at the new construction they are involved in. These are not moneymaking projects by any stretch of the imagination or other developers would have stepped up to the plate long ago.

We all may be suspicious of the Arkleys. We may be jealous of the enormous wealth that can enable such gifts to the community. But these are gifts, nonetheless.


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