In a recent Lake Geneva Regional News article, City of Lake Geneva Alderman John Halverson, when discussing the state of the Lake Geneva Riviera and a desired multi-million dollar referendum for repairs asked, “If we don’t get it passed, what should we do? Sell the building?”
I’m so glad he asked, so that I can answer. Yes. That’s the answer. Sell the building. The question was posed rhetorically, in a way that would suppose a yes answer would be ludicrous, even sacrileges. But the best way for the City of Lake Geneva to deal with the aging Riviera and the several million dollars of repairs it supposedly needs is to sell the building to the highest bidder. To keep the building beyond 2017 would be a significant mistake, and would prove once again that the city has no regard for the tax payers who already pay the highest rates around the lake.
I’m not suggesting the building be sold in a traditional manner, wherein the new owner would have the flexibility to do with it as he or she pleases. I’m suggesting that the city utilize the power of deed restrictions and covenants to clear an aging liability from their books. The Riviera is a most impressive structure, and its unique location and design lends a visual boost to downtown Lake Geneva and that commercialized lakefront scene. The structure has anchored downtown for generations, and should be respected. In the 1930s my grandmother would ride the train up with her sisters to dance at the ballroom on Saturday nights. She met my grandpa there, while he was hawking popcorn or cigarettes or newspapers. The Riviera has a deep and important history, and the building itself should be preserved. That’s why the property should be sold. Here’s how it could work.
The city slaps deed restrictions on the property, dictating the allowable future uses and the exterior design and color palette of the structure. What happens to the interior shouldn’t be any concern of the city, especially once they receive a few million dollars for the building. With the deed restrictions in place, the aesthetics of the Riviera and the setting will be secure, no matter who owns the deed. There are options as to how to sell the space. The city could rezone the building into a condominium, and retain the lower level retail spaces to be operated as they are today. The problem with this model is that the city would then still be on the hook for repairs, that’s why it’s best to sell the entire structure. Separate the park from the building, retain the park (the fountain, etc), and sell just the building. The entire thing.
Who buys it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe one of the nearby local business would like added square footage? Maybe the cruise line operating from the adjacent city pier system? The cruise line could utilize the space for some offices and use the ballroom for a wedding venue, just as it is used today. The difference is that rates could be increased exponentially from those paltry sums the city charges, and the building could be modernized to host more events. Some might suggest the increased usage of the facility would be a negative for the city. I’d argue that the structure is a ballroom. It wasn’t built to sit idle. It was built to host bands and dances and parties of epic proportions. Why not let the private market return the building to its original intent?
The city has estimated the repairs to be in the neighborhood of $5MM. My estimates that I’ve considered now for all of five minutes prove that the cost would be significantly less. The problem is municipalities pay retail plus for everything they do (just check on the cost of school construction for proof). The private market could handle those repairs for less than a million dollars, likely with ease. Yes, a new owner would have to undertake these repairs, which drives up the initial investment. Yes, the fact that the city has broadcast these repairs to the world means a buyer will use the city’s figures against them in a negotiation. Yes, that might mean the building sells for less than it might otherwise sell for. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is the city taxes its vacation home owners to fix up a building that loses money. To repair the Riviera on the taxpayer’s dime is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.
The idea of selling the Riviera hasn’t been discussed much in public, but it’s time the conversation begins. There is no reason for a city to own such a valuable liability. Deed restrict it. Zone it to allow very few select future uses, and sell it to the highest bidder. Since I am nothing if not a fan of Lake Geneva, I’ll even offer to sell the building for the city at a reduced commission rate.