Smithfield needs about $875,000 to rebuild crumbling Venture Drive, and the town council is debating how to come up with the money.
One idea is to create a special tax district made up of the properties along Venture Drive and Outlet Center Drive. At a recent meeting, one council member likened such a tax district to the one that has long existed in downtown Smithfield.
But that is not really an apples-to-apples comparison. The downtown Smithfield tax district came about because both the town and downtown properties owners wanted to breathe new life into Smithfield's central business district, which was suffering from business flight and building neglect.
Money from that tax hired a downtown development director, whose job was to promote downtown while encouraging property owners to spruce up their storefronts. Smithfield did not create the tax district to repair crumbling streets.
To be honest, we have no problem with a special tax district encompassing the outlet center and the hotels and restaurants that surround it. Among other things, money from such a tax district could build sidewalks connecting the various businesses in what has become Smithfield's commercial hub. The money could also pay for shared promotions, parking lot cleanup, lawn maintenance, whatever the property owners agreed upon, even road work.
But the idea for such a tax district should come from the property owners, or at the very least, property owners should support the formation of such a tax district.
Instead, the idea for this tax district comes from town hall, and we don't know that property owners along Venture Drive and Outlet Center Drive are rushing to town hall in support of the proposal.
What's missing here is a bit of honesty from town hall. If the truth be known, Smithfield is in no position to borrow the relatively paltry sum of $875,000 needed to rebuild Venture Drive, and that's because it mostly exhausted its borrowing capacity when it opted to turn a $3 million recreation and aquatics center into an $11 million money pit. That ill-conceived debt has made it hard for Smithfield to borrow money for pressing needs, including water and sewer system repairs and, yes, the rebuilding of Venture Drive.
We would encourage town leaders to approach property owners along Venture Drive and Outlet Center Drive. But in asking property owners to tax themselves, town leaders should admit that their own poor decisions have put the area's business interests between a rock and a hard place. If at that point, and with that knowledge, property owners agree to tax themselves, then by all means, move forward.
But the decision should rest with the affected property owners, not with a town desperate for money because of its own bad decisions.