Trade center funding plan likely to draw tough Tuesday questions

Monday, May 4, 2009 1:19 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010 10:50 PM
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City Administrator Fred Russell is likely to face some tough questions Tuesday on his plan to build the Reynolds Street trade, exhibit and event center while stimulating redevelopment in inner city neighborhoods, a plan that involves a total $92.5 million in projects, $35 million in bonds and a new development authority.

Mr. Russell presented his proposal in detail last week, and it’s on the agenda for possible approval at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Several commissioners said today that they’re skeptical about various aspects of the plan.

Betty Beard – whose district includes downtown and who got $750,000 per year from a $1 hotel fee set aside for inner city redevelopment in the compromise that approved the TEE center in 2007 – said she’s concerned about the city’s ability to pay back the bonds, considering the troubled economic times. She said this may not be the best time to move forward with the TEE center, and had the vote happened now, it wouldn’t have been the right time to approve revitalizing the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.

Mr. Russell’s plan involves issuing $9 million in bonds, $2 million of which would be from the city’s tax allocation district, to kick-start inner city revitalization.

“What type of exit do we have if these things don’t work out?” Ms. Beard said. “A lot of it is going to be whether I feel comfortable financing this right now.”

Commissioner Joe Bowles said he has questions about forming a new five-member Urban Redevelopment Authority to issue the bonds, though he’ll support it if it will save money. He wants to know if there would be a time limit on the authority’s lifespan and how much power it would have.

Mr. Bowles said he’d also like to see that $2 million in TAD bonds put somewhere else.

“Two million could go a long way on Gordon Highway,” he said.

Another lingering question is why the city’s existing Downtown Development Authority can’t issue the bonds. Mr. Russell said attorneys who helped formulate the plan said a new authority was the cleanest way to go about it.

DDA Executive Director Margaret Woodard said there’s no reason why the downtown authority can’t do it; Bethlehem may not be in its territory, but that would be easy to fix. The authority just incorporated Harrisburg into its territory about a month ago, Ms. Woodard said.

DDA Chairman Steven Kendrick said he’s trying to get clarification on the reasons for bypassing the downtown authority.

“Basically, it may just be a cost-cutting measure,” he said. “On the other hand, the DDA feels like if we can be a part, we certainly want to be a part of it.”

Commissioner Calvin Holland and super district Commissioner J.R. Hatney wouldn’t talk about the plan today.

“Right now, I’m not for it,” Mr. Holland said. “I’m somewhat skeptical right now, I’ll just say that.”

Super district Commissioner Don Grantham said he’s on board, though. It’s time to build the TEE center, which voters approved in a special-purpose sales tax package in 2005.

The new authority would be created and appointed by the commission for funding purposes only, he said, and that aspect of the plan may need polishing.

Mr. Grantham said the city wouldn’t have trouble making payments on the bonds. Hesitating because of the recession would be a bad idea, he said, because the city “can’t stop the wheels from turning” or it will be at a disadvantage when the economy improves.

“We’ve got to think forward,” he said. “We can’t just sit on our hands.”

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justus4 05/04/09 - 01:55 pm
DDA Chairman questioned why

DDA Chairman questioned why "they" are trying to "bypass" his agency, well, he need only to remember what drives most/all decisions in local gov't: U guessed it, racial politics. "They" have no confidence in your ability and secretly think, probably your decisions will advance a minority issue. And that kind of behavior cannot be allowed to happen. Of course everyone involved will provide a leagl justification for not utilizing a established local agency to complete the job, but the sad truth is the decision has to do with control & power, not saving taxpayer dollars. This guy Russell is not elected...but appears to have an agenda.

Frank 05/04/09 - 02:12 pm
I think if Betty Beard wants

I think if Betty Beard wants to renege on her support, then the city should reappropriate the funds provided to get her support.. that's just plain dirty politics..

doubt-it 05/04/09 - 02:54 pm
I agree with Bowles. The TAD

I agree with Bowles. The TAD bonds should be directed toward stimulating private redevelopment projects, not funding a public TEE Center. How bout reprograamming the TEE Center to reduce cost? Now's the time to save some money on construction.

disssman 05/04/09 - 03:35 pm
I just wonder who the council

I just wonder who the council plans on hiring into a new illegal authority. If I am not mistaken the current executive director of the DDA is not recognized by the current city code and was never approved by the state which authorized the make-up and forming of the DDA. BTW did the state approve the expansion of the DDA?

triscuit 05/04/09 - 04:03 pm
Oh great..just what we need,

Oh great..just what we need, another AUTHORITY.

mad_max 05/04/09 - 05:22 pm
Well Ms. Beard, what will you

Well Ms. Beard, what will you do when you blow the $750K every year on inner city redevelopment and that doesn't work out? It never has. I guess you will do the same thing Mr. Russell will do when his project don't work out. You will recommend raising the Richmond County property taxes to pay for your waste of money, and Mr. Russell will recommend raising our taxes to pay off the bond. The inner city will never be redeveloped until inverstors actually think the inner city has a chance of improving and that will never happen with the leadership, or lack thereof, that we have on our commission and various "authorities". Oh yeh, do we have to pay Betty Beard $750K a year every time we want her to vote for something? Is that a fixed price or does she sell out for a percentage of the proposal?

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