In his classic book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community,” Doug Griffiths puts “Don’t Attract Business” at Number Two. We all know that attracting new businesses to our small communities is critical to create jobs, generate local wealth, and enhance quality of life.
Which is why folks in Tower should be so upset about the efforts by a handful of individuals to smear local officials, the Tower Economic Development Authority, outside businesspeople, investors, and state officials who have attempted to put their faith in a better future for the community.
As we’ve reported through a variety of stories over the past year or so, a number of individuals have tried to engage in economic development in Tower in recent years. Two RV park developers hit a nearly impenetrable brick wall in the form of a city hall and planning and zoning commission that was openly hostile to new projects. Other prospective developers, including one who had an interest in significant and sustained redevelopment in Tower’s downtown three years ago, received no assistance from city hall, despite several attempts to gain cooperation.
More recently, we’ve seen businesspeople who came to Tower to build town homes at the city’s request, become embroiled in a grab bag of false and defamatory accusations disseminated by a handful of reckless individuals, including Steve Altenburg, Tony Sikora, and Gary and Edna Albertson, over a grant of IRRRB funds, passed through TEDA, to assist the project.
While these four individuals have sought primarily to target the city’s new mayor and the publisher of this newspaper, they have peppered a number of other individuals and agencies in their crossfire, including a well-respected architect, a real estate developer, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and the volunteers on the Tower Economic Development Authority.
The false and irresponsible claims being made almost weekly in the Tower News, written by either Altenburg or Sikora, and approved for publication by the Albertsons, are undoubtedly casting a pall over TEDA’s work. And TEDA isn’t alone. Mary Batanich, who has been the leading spark plug behind the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, said the current misinformation is hampering her ability to raise much-needed funds to finish that project.
As the old saying goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
And let’s be perfectly clear. The complaint filed with the state auditor by Mr. Altenburg earlier this year is based on childish misinterpretation of basic facts and a complete lack of due diligence. TEDA did its job appropriately and accurately and documented it every step of the way. That documentation is contained in the city files. Mr. Altenburg, Mr. Sikora, and the Albertsons are apparently unable to read and understand basic documents.
Mr. Altenburg and the Tower News have falsely claimed that one of several invoices from the former architect on the town home project was actually a “buy-out” of a partner. Yet the architect was never a partner in the project, a fundamental fact that neither Mr. Altenburg nor the Tower News bothered to check. When the Albertsons published Mr. Altenburg’s false claims in his newspaper, they committed libel, pure and simple.
The Tower News has proclaimed Mr. Altenburg a “whistleblower” but that is equally untrue. Under the state’s whistleblower law, an employee gains no protection when their claim is made with reckless disregard for the truth, as is the case with Mr. Altenburg. He is simply a dishonest individual hiding behind a law that was never enacted to protect people like him.
This may all just be sport to Mr. Altenburg, Mr. Sikora, and the Albertsons, but their reckless actions have real repercussions. How do you attract new people to invest or build in your community when they see this kind of ugliness? Even when potential investors know it’s false, who would want to risk being dragged into the middle of it?
How do you convince a state agency like the IRRRB to invest resources in the community when they run the risk of being tarred with this kind of nonsense?
The end result of wanting to invest in Tower shouldn’t be to have your efforts blocked by a recalcitrant city hall or your name or reputation dragged through the mud by irresponsible fools. It’s tough enough to bring investment to small towns.
Obviously, life in a small town is never perfect. And newspapers have a responsibility to shine a light where it’s needed. We’ve shone our own light on the dishonesty and dysfunction that the new city council is finally starting to clear away. But our reporting was based on actual facts and solid investigation, not wild imaginings by reckless individuals who refuse to comprehend basic facts. These are exactly the kind of people who can and will kill a community. Folks in Tower shouldn’t stand for it.