Does Gary Matthews ever wonder about his legacy in Peoria?
Maybe he doesn't care if he is remembered with widespread distaste. If so, perhaps he whistled and skipped with glee in filing a lawsuit against the city. But there's a risk there: his skidding reputation might crash and burn entirely.
He was at the wheel as the Downtown hotel project nearly got driven into the ground. But it's one thing to be known for a failure. It's another to be reviled as a villain.
And who else but a villain would — per the lawsuit — blame the city for business mistakes, therein sticking taxpayers with legal-defense fees? Is that how Matthews, along with partner Monte Brennan, wants to be forever remembered?
The lawsuit is layered and complex, accusing the city (especially Mayor Jim Ardis and City Manager Patrick Urich) of derailing the project and costing taxpayers $7 million. And, to be clear, this space has taken the city to task for its role here in putting public money into a private enterprise.
But the city's biggest mistake was trusting the bluster and promise of Matthews and Brennan. In 2008, in unveiling drawings of the new project, Matthews pledged, “I have never built a project that didn’t support itself, and this one will support itself, as well.” And two years later, he vowed, "This project, like every project I do, will support itself. The city is not giving me anything.”
We now can see his words as bragging and baloney. But there's always an element of trust involved in big projects, and the city trusted the developers to deliver as promised and help revamp Downtown.
But the lawsuit claims the city didn't allow Matthews and Brennan to succeed: rather, when the Pere Marquette started foundering, the city got too tough on the developers, strangling their ability to run things right. Moreover, the City Council's "negative attitude" toward the developers and the project — at one point, the suit refers to the council's "hatred and distrust" — sank any chance at refinancing.
Further, during bankruptcy proceedings, the city's fraud and incompetency allegations were nothing more than "vitriolic and slanderous attacks," the suit states. Overall, according to the documents, the city "violated the tenets of good faith and fair dealing."
Good faith, eh?
Remember those designs for a Courtyard Peoria Downtown as a curved-glass wonder that gave way to a run-of-the-mill stacking of bricks? Remember the project deadlines that repeatedly got delayed? Remember the pledge to find tenants for the still-empty retail space?
There was a lot of "good faith" — by the city and the public — put in the hands of Matthews and Brennan. But Peoria's hopes and expectations were dashed over and over and over.
Meantime, as the project was wrested from the pair in the past year, it's not as if the city did so in secret or at gunpoint. There was no extortion or stick-up. In April, Matthews and Brannan agreed to a quick sale of the development properties. In Mary, the bankruptcy judge said it was time to put the place up for bid. And in September, after no bidders came forward, the development went into the hands of the primary lender, which is now working hard to make things work.
But now there's a lawsuit. It's as if Matthews and Brennan can't help but continue to try to undercut the city and keep the bad vibe trembling.
And that's curious, especially considering the suit's persnickety attention to words by the mayor and the council. I think back to 2014, as Matthews was supposedly retiring, when he reflected on his career.
"People ask what a developer does," he said. "I think it's to create value to a piece of real estate."
That didn't happen with the hotel project. And the lawsuit can only add to old hurts and difficulties.
Brennan has always been the quiet one. He's never courted public adoration.
Matthews, though, has always craved the spotlight. He loves attention. You'd think he'd want to bask in the glow of knowing his legacy is secure.
And with the lawsuit, maybe it is — but almost certainly not in the way anyone expected long ago when he made so many promises for a brighter Peoria future.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.