In the end – which happens to be March 12 – the City of North Augusta will learn if the Aiken County Board of Education will provide them with the support the city says it has to have to finance a major economic development initiative.
At a School Board public hearing Monday, North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones, City Administrator Todd Glover and other speakers gave their reasons why a Tax Incremental Financing, known as a TIF, mechanism would allow a public/private investment that could greatly build up the city for the future.
Other speakers, led by North Augusta resident Steve Donohue, urged the School Board to reject the project – arguing that it wold cost the Aiken School District money over the minimum of 23-year life of the TIF.
The city needs an answer from the School Board and the Aiken County Council by March 19. The School Board will hold a scheduled meeting March 12.
The issue at stake is not simple. Essentially, the City of North Augusta wants to amend an existing TIF and pave the way for a new minor-league baseball stadium and conference center, along with privately-invested funds for retail stores, housing and more – covering 24 acres adjacent to Hammond’s Ferry.
The city would freeze assessed value in that area for the duration of 30 years or, as city officials hope, about 23 years. The School Board would give up higher tax receipts during that period until the TIF ends.
Donohue and other opponents contend that the City of North Augusta can get additional investment without a TIF. Further, Donohue said, it makes no sense to building a baseball stadium for Augusta’s GreenJackets minor league team – given the current stadium in Augusta is only 1.7 miles away.
“There’s no economic benefit to a new minor league stadium,” he said.
But the city now has an even greater opportunity to thrive and grow, said Jones – providing a quality of life where people want to continue to live and raise their families. The existing TIF did just what it was supposed to, Jones said.
As for the school district, it “will get the normal tax revenues,” Jones said. “We don’t expect to get many new students. If the project comes to fruition, it will send a message across the region. We’ll have more shops (outside the TIF) and more school tax dollars without any new students.”
The TIF proposal is overwhelmingly favored by mostly North Augusta residents, Jones said.
The City of North Augusta is also seeking the approval of the Aiken County Council. The School Board’s higher millage rate, however, is the approval the city truly needs.
Last week, the City of North Augusta did make a pitch for the County Council’s blessing.
The council, too, has not voted on the proposal, but several members did ask about supporting a plan that could possibly divert about $1 million a year from the TIF funding.
If nothing happens with the TIF, Glover said after the School Board meeting, neither the schools or the County Council would get anything on undeveloped property. North Augusta has an agreement already in place for private investment that could bring in about $450,000 a year for the school district, Glover said.
If the TIF goes through, he acknowledged that the School Board would not get any new taxes from the TIF area for the duration of the TIF.
However, once it ends and the city hopes to pay its $43 million obligation in 23 years, the School District would expect to receive about $900,000 annually, Glover said.
“That’s a good point,” said Board member Richard Hazen, “that this project could bring in future economic growth. Another side of it is that the district will be giving up funds on development that wold be developed anyway. But we will gain on other development outside the TIF.”
Without Project Jackson, said small business owner Rachel Franklin, the town will be hurt. People will come from Augusta and other areas to spend their money, she said.
North Augusta resident and Aiken County Councilmember Chuck Smith said at the meeting that he expects 2,700 construction jobs will be created by the development, putting in about $292 million back into the community. He contends 1,100 permanent jobs would be established, as well. But, after being questioned by the board about the jobs, Smith admitted that not all of them would necessarily be filled by residents in Aiken County.
One issue remains, Donohue said. He maintains that the proposed TIF extension is illegal, because it’s supposed to replace blight. There is none in that area, he said.
Board member Wesley Hightower expressed his concern about the impact on the school district.
“I must ask the following,” he said. “What is best for students and what is best for taxpayers?”