Is the City of North Augusta's Project Jackson proposal essential to the growth of the City and the Aiken County School District or is the plan filled with assumptions that will cost taxpayers and won't help the Aiken County Board of Education's own efforts?
Proponents and opponents spent two hours at a School Board public hearing on Tuesday – responding to the City of North Augusta's request that the Board members agree to divert school taxes as a part of an extensive riverfront development plan within North Augusta.
“I'm here to talk about the benefits the development would bring,” said Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership. “I'm not seeing a downside on this. It's a way for Aiken County to move forward.”
Another speaker, Rick Brisson, said the School Board should recognize that education is its key mission, not speculative development in North Augusta.
North Augusta City officials are asking the School Board – and the Aiken County Council, as well – to divert taxes so that the City can pursue a public-private investment in the Hammond's Ferry area. The Tax Increment Financing would end in 15 years – reducing in half the original 30-year proposal the School Board balked at during a meeting earlier this month. The Board members will have about six weeks to come up with a decision.
The plans include a minor league baseball stadium, that North Augusta officials now say no tax revenue will be used to construct. North Augusta will own the stadium, a conference center and a parking garage, and private development will continue indefinitely.
Brisson said he's not voting against Project Jackson.
“If the proposal is as sound as it has been presented to you, the City can surely proceed without any additional funds from the schools,” he said. “It's not a vote against economic development.”
This public-private partnership may be a gamble the City is willing to take, but the School District should not, Brisson said.
Catie Rabun is an employee of developer Leyland Alliance and is a real estate development associate at Hammond's Ferry.
She wouldn't gain personally from any development of Project Jackson, she said, but she does believe that initiative can mean much to Aiken County.
“I look for our leaders to work toward increasing the vibrancy of our communities,” she said, that make them places where people want to live and where business owners want to invest.
TIF efforts are intended to alleviate blight, said opponent Steve Donohue, but that area is not blighted. He considers Project Jackson a “Wheel of Misfortune.”
Others objecting to the initiative said the School District could lose some $12 million in revenue through the life of the TIF. But those supporting the project maintain that the School District will lose virtually nothing over that 15 year period, about $3,500 a year because of the existing lack of development.
“With the TIF, you'll get $300,000 every year for 15 years and $1.1 million after that,” said City Administrator Todd Glover.
In 2010 the School Board sought a $236 million construction bond referendum to build or rebuild six county schools, said speaker Tom Fisher. Those needs still exist and school officials will require another referendum in the future. If that occurs, voters would object the School Board had left tax revenues on the table during a TIF.
“Whether you're for or against the TIF, the School Board doesn't need to be involved in commercial development,” he said.
Scott Gudith agreed, asking the Board members not be lured by the money of Project Jackson. These are hypothetical numbers from some fancy software and are only assumptions.
But the opponents don't seem to realize that the City of North Augusta has been the red-headed stepchild of Aiken County, said Rachel Franklin. Hammond's Ferry has attracted new residents and others moving back. Project Jackson can bring in new business, as well. Too much money now is going to Georgia, and Franklin said the opponents are fighting their own county.
“I hope you support our administrator and the Council and give them this opportunity,” she said.