March 3, 2024

A Non-campaign Campaign

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 23, 2023

You might have noticed the pregame activities for Traverse City’s TIF 97 extension campaign have already begun.

TIF 97 has been rebranded as the Moving Downtown Forward TIF, adding some pizzazz to it. And the third parking deck, touted for years as crucial, is not a parking deck anymore. It’s now the West End Mixed-Use Development, and it eliminates some of the originally planned parking slots to include housing and retail.

These are projects of Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and they’ve hired two outside consulting firms to help “educate” city residents, and presumably voters, on the importance of downtown and the importance of tax increment financing (TIF) districts. One of the firms will also focus on "DDA general needs including branding initiatives, the Grandview Parkway reconstruction project and Park Once initiatives," per the DDA meeting minutes.

(In a TIF district, a baseline property tax is established, and that amount is paid to the city annually along with a smaller piece going to the county, Northwestern Michigan College, and the library district. As the property within the TIF district increases in value, the amount above the baseline then is “captured” by the DDA. TIF 97 was established in 1997 with the promise it would not be extended beyond its 30-year life cycle.)

We are asked to believe it is just a coincidence the education and information campaigns occur in the lead-up to a likely ballot issue to determine if TIF 97, which expires in four years, should be extended by nearly three decades. We are assured, however, this is not about a campaign supporting a TIF extension since neither the DDA nor the city itself is legally allowed to conduct such a campaign.

DDA Executive Director Jean Derenzy, as quoted in both our local daily newspaper and the September 13 issue of The Ticker, reassured us these are not campaign-related efforts. She said, “…the TIF communication support will be for educational purposes only and will not advocate for or against any potential future ballot initiative.”

All right, but it does make one wonder why they have hired a campaign consulting firm, Bright Spark Strategies out of Lansing, to conduct the TIF education campaign. Their own website, as of September 15, proudly tells the story of a political and campaign consulting operation. Under a section that claims they have “Over 60 years of combined experience” their site says, “From caucus campaigns, to ballot initiatives, independent expenditures and issue advocacy campaigns, we’ve done it all at least once.” Under their Our Services section, the very first item on the list is “Campaign Strategy and Services.”

In the bio for Kristin Combs, a founder and partner at Bright Spark, the first item says, “She brings more than 20 years of experience curating and spearheading political campaigns.” The remainder of the bio lists more and more campaign-related activity.

So, the DDA has hired, with $50,000 of tax dollars, an experienced group of campaign and political professionals to conduct an effort for “educational purposes only” rather than a pure public relations organization specializing in such things. Surely Bright Spark can undertake education and information efforts, but anyone reading their website would not assume those are their specialty.

This is not to criticize Bright Spark, whose job will be to create advocacy for TIF without mentioning a TIF renewal might be on the ballot. It’s a tricky and fine line they’ll have to follow, but since their website also lists “compliance” as one of their strengths, they won’t likely veer over that line. They might not mention the proposed TIF extension at all, but there will be thinly veiled advocacy aplenty since that will be their job. They just can’t tell us to vote yes or no on anything—or shouldn’t, since that would be a no-no.

Those of us who have worked on these kinds of campaigns understand the game: advocacy that doesn’t overtly and specifically advocate. We also understand that absent a potential ballot issue, the likelihood of outside consultants being hired—the group hired to address DDA general needs will cost $90,000—would have been low. The DDA has been around for a long time, and the suggestion that their sudden need for outside help is not related to a potential ballot issue posing an existential threat to their future is more than just a little disingenuous.

It is highly likely the TIF 97 extension issue will end up on a future ballot. The DDA has decided they need some help finessing that issue in their favor, since much of what they propose for the future is dependent on more TIF property tax captures. Understandably, the DDA is putting together a non-campaign campaign team. Other TIF extension supporters unaffiliated with the city will be able to advocate more openly.

Opponents will soon join the fray, and the campaign and the non-campaign will begin in earnest.

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