City - County Gov.Leslee Kulba

As the public/private line blurs

By Leslee Kulba-

Once again, the City of Asheville approved economic development incentives for Linamar. In the first round, in June, the state announced it would be offering the company a Job Development Investment Grant of up to $2.7 million. The City of Asheville and Buncombe County volunteered their tax payers to pony-up and offered another $2.2 and 6.8 million, respectively. The county even purchased the old Volvo plant to hold it until Linamar was ready to start making payments. The funds would help the company invest $125 million in the economy and create 400 jobs with an average wage of $39,752. Although members of council did not hesitate to moan about the city’s budget woes, they were grateful for the opportunity to promise Linamar another $1 million Tuesday. The latest, performance-based grant would be payable in five annual installments, and it would assist the company with an expansion involving $75 million in capital improvements. Read more…

City Manager Gary Jackson said to be compliant with state statutes for gifting private corporations with public funds, the city had to pass the “but with test.” Councilman Cecil Bothwell thought that was bunk, as no company has ever failed the subjective criterion. It is easy enough to make the claim, and perhaps easier to use it to leverage more money. Bothwell reiterated what he has said on many occasions. He is opposed to building an economy by lining the pockets of big businesses with little-guy taxpayer contributions. Bothwell added that he made an exception for New Belgium because he believed that project to be “transformative.” Mayor Terry Bellamy said she heard the arguments about picking and choosing government favorites, but she spoke with line workers face to face. She heard the stories of people who had been out of work for months. Some had sworn they would never take public assistance, but found themselves forced to do things they never thought they would. She shared their joy as government contributions were helping them get their lives back together. Marc Hunt also shared some regrets about playing the crony capitalist game, and took the “everybody else is doing it” argument one step further. Business recruitment is a highly competitive game. Employers shop the field for economic development incentives when deciding where to locate, and if Asheville were say it was not playing, businesses like New Belgium and Linamar would not even look at it. Council approved the award with a 6-1 vote. Only Bothwell was opposed. In Other Matters – Council received an update from staff on what to do with its run-down eyesore in the heart of the city. Across from the US Cellular Center, is an abandoned, two-story parking garage. The property is owned by the city, and has been in a dilapidated state for years. About five years ago, it was brought onboard an RFP program the city was conducting to try to convert underutilized municipal landholdings into workforce housing developments. Councilman Gordon Smith acknowledged it was difficult to find anybody willing to build subsidized housing on prime real estate even in a healthy market. Parties attempting the challenge at Eagle-Market Street are still struggling in spite of grants and tax credits. In light of these complications, council had decided it could skim profits off developments on the RFP properties, and give them to affordable housing projects elsewhere in the city. McKibbon Hotel Group was one of few businesses to submit a proposal. It suggested converting the lots into a hotel. This outraged environmentalists who wanted the land converted into a park. They persuaded leadership at the Basilica St. Lawrence to get onboard, and a huge protest ensued. Bothwell told of numerous campaigns he had led to stop the development of the land and told of outpourings of citizen support. Councilman Jan Davis respectfully begged to differ with Bothwell’s conclusions. Davis had been a respondent in the phone survey Bothwell’s group had launched, and he had never heard such a biased, leading set of questions. The general drift of council’s comments indicated a preference to see the space developed for a tax-generating commercial use that would leave about half the space open for a park or piazza to frame the basilica. Hunt, speaking as the former chair of the city’s Greenways Commission, said volumes of public input taken for the Downtown Master Plan and the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Master Plan had not indicated there was an interest in building a park on the plot in question. There had, however, been a lot of long pushed-aside demands for parks in other parts of the city. Bothwell wanted to be perfectly clear. The decision of council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee to advance the matter to the entire board was not to be construed as an endorsement. Bothwell voted in favor of the advance because the committee had reached an impasse. Council, following proper noticing, will be considering a purchase offer from McKibbon.

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