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Who is really killing progress?

So why isn’t Marion getting a new hotel? If you believe the unedited transcript (elsewhere on this page) of Monday’s city council meeting, it’s entirely the fault of this newspaper.

Truth is, we started investigating a $7,000 taxpayer-paid feasibility study, which concluded that  $1 million in local investment would be needed as a down payment, only after a routine web search revealed that a veteran hotel operator in another Kansas community had raised serious concerns regarding the thoroughness and accuracy of a similar study, paid for at that community’s expense, by the same lone consultant.

Strikingly similar concerns were noted in the Marion study — including its listing as open a business that had closed years earlier and its failing to account for all local lodging options and their vacancy rates, instead referencing less-than-full occupancy rates in larger communities 30 or more miles away.

We reported these issues but first gave officials and the consultant, who never returned our calls, an opportunity to respond. Our balanced story, headlined “Officials defend hotel study,” repeatedly quoted city officials as being satisfied with the accuracy of the study and dismissing concerns raised,

We understand how the consultant might be upset. But never once did our story raise any question about the hotel chain or the affiliated company it requires local investors to hire for all construction.

The only reason we can imagine for the hotel company to be upset is that potential local investors might now think twice about the implicit promises of what otherwise would have been an unquestioned, taxpayer-paid, government-endorsed report justifying the money they would have paid the hotel firm’s construction company and the franchise fees the hotel firm might have collected from them.

So the question becomes, did our story cost Marion a hotel, or did it save potential civic-minded investors from being overly assured that their investment was secure?

If we and the experienced hotelier from another community are wrong, all it will take is for officials to point out how each of the concerns raised was in error. A serious investor won’t be dissuaded by careful examination of claims. In fact, he or she likely would be reassured by a bit of proverbial kicking of the tires before any deal is made.

That’s precisely why the mayor’s comments, urging that the city study how to keep matters like this secret, are so concerning. City officials are laudably trying to move the city forward as fast as they can. But sometimes in their haste they overlook things, like the Kansas hotelier’s concerns or, in another recent case, the actual ownership of land near the country club where an allegedly illegal used car lot appears to be operating. Instead of addressing concerns, they try to move them behind closed doors. Council members were notified by the weekend of the hotel company’s decision; however, no mention of it was made in the lengthy packet of the materials routinely sent to the press and other interested parties prior to council meetings, apparently so we could be blind-sided by them at the meeting. We gave them a chance to comment. Apparently they don’t want to give us the same opportunity.

Part of why democracy puts such emphasis on open meetings and a free press is that they often expose oversights that secretive government fails to address. Is that what happened here? Or are we at the newspaper, as some never-wrong officials seem to think, just a bunch of despicably negative people who spend all of our time trying to derail all progress — which, by the way, would hurt our business as much as, if not more than, it would any city official’s?

— Eric Meyer

Last modified June 25, 2015

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