Monongalia County commissioners scheduled a public meeting on plans for a new baseball stadium at University Town Center Wednesday, but questions linger about the project’s feasibility and whether commissioners will ultimately support devoting tax dollars to what could become the home baseball field for West Virginia University.
During a regular meeting Wednesday, commissioners scrutinized lawyers for Mon-View LLC., the developers of University Town Center and the proposed ballpark that would house WVU and a possible independent minor league team.
WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck has been pushing for the stadium ever since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12. Hawley Field is inadequate and antiquated when compared with other Big 12 facilities, Luck says.
Brian Helmick, an attorney with Spillman Thomas and Battle, asked commissioners to pass two resolutions setting public hearings on proposals to create tax increment finance (TIF) districts to pay for the project.
TIF districts are designed to use tax revenue in excess of a specified amount to pay for projects. Developments at University Town Center will use both a property TIF and sales TIF. Under a TIF, officials carve out a particular area where taxes are collected like normal, but all tax revenue above a base amount is committed to specified projects. Tax receipts from 2011 would set the standard amount for TIFs in the ballpark plan. Any amount collected above the standard would go solely toward the ballpark and utilities.
The county commission must approve the property TIF; the state Legislature has the final say on the sales tax TIF. Commissioners must hold public hearings on both proposed TIF districts, under state code.
Money generated from the property TIF — county tax dollars — would go toward public infrastructure improvements. Water, sewage and roads would be improved around the ballpark. The sales TIF uses state tax money to pay for the estimated $15 million stadium.
Parts of the districts would be within and adjacent to the town of Granville and city of Westover. Both municipalities are on board with the plan.
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners agreed to set a public hearing for June 27. Commissioners unanimously approved the resolutions after expressing serious doubts about the viability of the project and the process used to push it through.
When Helmick introduced the resolutions Wednesday, Commission President Bill Bartolo was skeptical the commission should take action.
"I hope you aren’t asking us to pass these today," Bartolo said. "I don’t think the public would want us to pass something we didn’t read."
However, after Commissioner Eldon Callen read through the resolutions and Helmick further explained the language, Bartolo, Callen and Commissioner Asel Kennedy agreed to schedule the public hearings. The resolutions did not approve anything other than the public hearings, Helmick said.
When Bartolo suggested delaying a vote on the resolutions until next week, Helmick emphasized the urgency of getting the project moving. He said there must be 20-day notice on a public meeting. After the June 27 hearing, the county commission must approve the property TIF application and the state must approve the sales TIF application during a special legislative session. If those steps aren’t taken immediately, the project could be pushed back to the regular legislative session in January, he said.
"That would put the project in serious jeopardy," Helmick said. "There is a tight schedule."
Bartolo criticized the exigent nature of the proposal and perceived lack of planning.
"I was always told that if you don’t have enough time, maybe you didn’t start soon enough," he said.
Commissioners also voiced reservations about the development process at the town center. Under the proposal, construction on the baseball stadium would be completed by spring 2014. Upgrades to water, sewage and some roads would simultaneously be underway, Helmick said. However, the plan to build a new interchange that would connect Interstate 79 to University Town Center would not commence until at least two years after the stadium is built, according to developers.
With traffic already a major headache at the Granville shopping complex, county officials questioned whether developers have the proper priorities.
"Let’s do the infrastructure, the interchange and whatever we need to do to the roadways, then let’s do the ballpark," Bartolo said. "But it’s obvious to me that then they would lose WVU’s interest in a baseball facility."
But Helmick said the interchange could not be built without the ballpark. The state Department of Transportation and federal highway officials support the interchange, but money is not readily available, he said. The only way to pay for the interchange is to build the ballpark, encourage development and use increment tax revenue to pay for the new access road, Helmick said.
"It’s like the chicken or the egg," Helmick said about the ballpark and interchange. "But in this case, the ballpark must come first."
Callen wondered if developers could guarantee an interchange would be built at all. He said developers have "a real opportunity" to ease traffic in the area by building the interchange and creating a roadway on the western side of the interstate that would connect to Mylan Park.
"I’m not going to be OK with a TIF that doesn’t say an interchange will be built at some point," Callen said. "This has to be a part of it."
Helmick said the interchange will eventually be built, but it could take some time. He said the TIF districts will provide the ability to leverage funds for the first phase of infrastructure improvements on the current Star City interchange and the entrance at University Town Center. Those upgrades will alleviate traffic backups until the interchange is built, Helmick said.
Once the ballpark is constructed and utilities in place, developers and commissioners are banking on more growth in the area surrounding the stadium. If more shops and restaurants open, the county will collect more increment tax revenue to pay for the interchange.
However, Helmick said Mon-View cannot guarantee that more stores and dinning establishments will open around the ballpark. He said he expects growth once utilities are in place, but that developers will build only the stadium.
That did not sit well with commissioners who say they were promised more than just the ballpark.
"The original proposal was more expanded than this," Bartolo said. "I have a problem handing over taxpayer money for just a ballpark."
State Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, spoke in favor of the stadium, interchange and TIF districts. Beach took to social networks Wednesday to try to quell commissioners’ fears.
"I think there is a need for Commissioners to take a TIF 101 course," Beach Tweeted. "TIF Districts are complicated, the more they know the better they’ll feel about approval."
After the public hearing June 27, the county commission will be asked to approve the property TIF. The sales TIF application will be sent to the state Legislature where it will likely be taken up later this year. If approved, the sales TIF would be only the third in the state. The TIF districts would be in place by statute for 30 years.
Bartolo said commissioners have much work ahead of them. At this point, the fate of the proposals is unclear, he said.
"I’m still not real clear on the project," Bartolo said. "There are a number of issues. I’m sure the public hearing will take the time to clear those up, and the people who have the answers will be there."