Mayor, incumbents put on defensive on land deal at forum

Mayor Frank Lucente was on the defensive at a Thursday night candidates forum on the issue of the controversial $3.5 million land deal that his City Council agreed to with two former political supporters.

“I think in the long run we made a good deal. If I was doing a business deal, I would do the same thing for myself. So I think it was a good deal for the taxpayers,” Lucente said in the face of criticism at a Youth Summit sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club.

There was discussion of youth-focused issues, as expected, as well at the event, with Lucente and fellow council incumbents Bruce Allen and Tim Williams coming under fire on funding for local schools and the lack of city support for youth service organizations like the Boys & Girls Club.

But the heat was on particularly with regard to the move by City Council last year to approve the $3.5 million purchase of land adjacent to the current city industrial park and Interstate 64 from two businessmen who had donated to the 2008 City Council campaigns of Lucente and Allen.

“Municipal growth is critical for all localities these days, and owning land and having potential to develop it is critical. We know that. What I don’t like that has occurred with this land deal is that it was done behind the scenes, it was done by two council members, and it was done without the full foresight and knowledge of all five Council members,” said Lorie Smith, who is challenging Lucente for the At-Large seat on City Council in the May 1 city elections.

“Why was the public not informed that there was going to be a $13.7 million total project buildout on this project? I have not seen any discussion that has talked about the impact on our tax base in the next 10 to 20 years while we quote-unquote ‘sit’ on this property? This is not being fiscally conservative, and it’s not being business-like and prudent in hard economic times,” Smith said.

Lucente offered a tepid defense of the land deal, citing criticism of his City Council for leaving the economic-development director position open for 18 months.

“So we get an economic-development director, and he wants something to sell. There’s no use having an economic developer if you don’t have anything to sell,” said Lucente, who later claimed that inflationary pressures on the economy pushed by deficit spending at the federal level affecting the price of everyday items including the price of hot dogs will push the value of the land over time.

“I can assure you that in 15 years that land is going to be worth a whole lot more than what we paid for it,” Lucente said.

“I think in the long run we made a good deal. If I was doing a business deal, I would do the same thing for myself. So I think it was a good deal for the taxpayers.”

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