Playing spin the bottle with cost estimates is an unprofessional and unacceptable way to manage a valuable and high-stakes public project. Yet that's the insulting game city staff has played with the floating price tag of exhibits at Charlotte's $190 million NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Before another dollar is added, City Council needs to get control. First, get the right numbers for how much exhibits should cost, and adjust spending accordingly. Next, fix the cost estimating process, because it's obviously broken. Then, own up to the fact that the secrecy surrounding this project is the wrong way to do business.
Last week City Council OK'd $32 million in add-ons to the cost of construction and exhibits at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The bulk of that will pay for pricey, slick interactive exhibits, an upgrade that makes long-term financial sense.
Yet the way city staff has handled cost estimates is a joke.
The original estimates were too low by staff's own admission. Then the add-ons were over the top – and, it turns out, drawn on a napkin.
An Observer investigation showed the latest estimates were overstated and based on comparisons that were just plain wrong. No one from city staff has been able to offer a precise explanation of how those inflated estimates were reached.
What is this, Mayberry? City Council needs to do three things –fast:
Direct City Manager Curt Walton to research and revise the exhibit estimates. Then the add-on budget should be revised.
Direct Walton to investigate and report, by the Oct. 6 council meeting, the facts about what happened, why and who dropped the ball.
Ask Walton to provide a detailed plan to keep the same mistakes from being repeated.
City Council, too must acknowledge its own role in this mess.
From the beginning, negotiations and plans for the NASCAR Hall of Fame have been wrapped in secrecy. That's wrong – and risky. It kept figures such as cost estimates from being vetted publicly before being rubberstamped.
Sure, Charlotte was competing with other cities to land this attraction. But this is a public project involving public money.
If you want to build a boondoggle, lock the door and turn out the lights. But if you want a sound budget and a sound project, air the details so potential problems can be identified and fixed.
Elected officials, not city staff, set the standard for openness. This should be a lesson to Charlotte's City Council.