North Augusta officials were reeling Wednesday after taking an unexpected blow to plans for a $160 million riverfront development from the Aiken County Council that now threatens a proposed stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.
Mayor Lark Jones said Tuesday night’s 4-2 vote against extending the tax increment financing district caught everyone off guard.
“We were surprised,” Jones said. “We felt like the county would support it. Going into this, we got the impression with the county that we had no problems.”
The proposed development, dubbed “Project Jackson,” includes a stadium, a 200-room resort-style hotel and conference center; up to four restaurants; 75 townhouses; 225 apartments; 30,000 square feet of retail space; 40,000 square feet of office space; and 900 parking spaces.
Under the proposal, the city would be responsible for about 30 percent of the financing, about $43 million for the sports and entertainment center, conference center and parking garage. In exchange, private developers promised $122 million in investment for the hotel, retail, residential and office space, officials said.
To come up with its portion of the financing, North Augusta would collect property taxes through the TIF district – meaning it would get tax revenue on the incremental difference between rising property values and values for Aiken County, which would remain frozen at 1996 levels for 30 years.
Supporters of the project expressed frustration and dejection at the council vote.
Chris Schoen, of Greenstone Properties, the development group behind the proposed project, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “It is apparent that we have not done a thorough job of educating the public and the County Council about how the funding of this project works.”
Councilwoman Kathy Rawls, who voted against the measure, said she and others on the council were skeptical of the baseball stadium and opposed to extending the TIF district, which was set to expire in 2016.
“The big problem is that they are including the former TIF in with the new TIF, and those property values would be locked in at the 1996 values,” she said. “That would not change until 2046. That is unreal.”
Rawls said she also received a number of calls from residents opposed to the project.
She said she could consider supporting a revised financing proposal that still included the hotel, but not with a stadium for the GreenJackets, whose owners decided to leave Augusta after failing to get a stadium built there.
“I have a lot of doubts about the success of the baseball stadium and the location,” she said. “I don’t see how that baseball stadium could succeed when it hasn’t succeeded two miles away.”
Councilman Chuck Smith, whose district includes North Augusta, said he doesn’t think his fellow council members understand the tax district financing very well. He said the plans were carefully thought through by city officials and there isn’t much room for revision.
“There a chance, but it is a very remote chance,” Smith said. He said those opposed to the plan are focusing on short-term lost property tax revenue and not on growth in jobs and future taxes the project is expected to generate. He said those rewards far outweigh any short-term impact from the tax financing.
“I think 2,700 jobs goes a long way to help people pay their property taxes,” he said. “What needs to be our focus in the CSRA is creating jobs, and if we do that we will take care of economic development.”
Jones said that officials weren’t ready to scrap the plan yet but that its chances for success have diminished greatly.
He said they might go back to the council with a revised plan, if one can be worked out with developers.
“We aren’t dead yet, but we are on life support,” he said. “We needed their help, and it is unfortunate that they didn’t see the big picture.”