Project Jackson is heading to the top of the ninth inning as only one more vote is needed from Aiken County Council to defer several million dollars in property tax revenue that would help fund the endeavor.
County Council voted 6 to 3 for an extension of the North Augusta Tax Increment Financing plan, often referred to as the TIF, to help pay for the construction of a multi-use sports and entertainment venue, conference center and parking structures at the river front. Council members Kathy Rawls, Phil Napier and Willar Hightower voted against the motion.
The final reading will tentatively be held on Sept. 17 at the next regular Council meeting.
Before the vote was made, Councilman Phil Napier moved that the item be turned over to the voters in the form of a referendum. The motion was turned down with only Napier and Hightower supporting it.
On top of approximately $8 million generated from the County's participation in the current TIF, which expires in 2017, another $16.5 million will be deferred in property taxes of the 460-acre district for 30 years if it gets final approval.
Dozens of residents, potential investors and public figures spoke for and against the project during the intense two-and-half-hour public hearing. Traffic concerns, financing, environmental impacts, questions of job creation and calling for a referendum to let residents vote on the project were just a few of the many issues brought up during the meeting.
In one case, a resident reading his speech against the project ran out of time during the three-minute time limit set for each speaker, so another resident stood up and read the rest of his written speech for him.
People booed, cheered and called out both pro- and anti-project comments throughout the night.
Resident Mike Stake said he believes in economics, business and growth but said TIFs across the country have been abused in other states.
“Do it as a private individual,” Stake said about funding the project. “If you wish to be an investor, put as much into it as you want but don't sign the County into it.”
Tom Greene, the chairman of North Augusta 2000 and former city mayor, urged Council to approve the TIF extension. He said if it doesn't pass, Project Jackson fails, and North Augusta will continue a path towards becoming an “aging city.”
“Our children will graduate high school or college and leave North Augusta,” Greene said.
Once it got to Council, there were a mix of opinions across the board.
Councilwoman Kathy Rawls said that the private and public investor ratio is unacceptable. She cited a total of $75.8 million in TIF funds from the County, School District and North Augusta combined going into a project with approximately $101 million in private investments.
“Employees' salaries have been on hold for six years without keeping up with cost of living increases, ambulances are falling apart, other vehicles need replacing, equipment needs replacing and et cetera,” Rawls said. “If we vote to extend this TIF another 30 years, we are selling out our county and selling out our employees.”
Councilman Willar Hightower said that he didn't feel that the area in question was entirely “blighted,” which is required under TIF law. He added that if Council is going to agree to an extension, he'd feel more comfortable with 15 years than three decades.
Councilman Scott Singer said that in all his years in Council, he turned down each TIF that came across the agenda because he didn't feel they were good economic deals. But he said he doesn't feel that Project Jackson is a bad economic deal.
Councilwoman Lawana McKenzie said that the issue at hand has many different points of view, and she hopes to make a final decision that will best represent the people in her district. She said the creations of jobs, even minimum wage positions, would be better than no job at all for many people. McKenzie said that, like with any project, it may come with a few problems but the pros and cons must be weighed out.
“I wish my district had the problem you've got tonight,” McKenzie said to the audience.
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010.