By CARL SMITH
Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Marvell Howard says he’s optimistic about the passage of a tax increment financing plan for the CottonMill Marketplace despite the board’s postponement of a public hearing on the subject Monday.
The board postponed the hearing until developers are available to answer questions. No development representatives were in attendance during Monday’s meeting, a fact public speakers and supervisors acknowledged throughout the hearing. A makeup date has not been decided, but Howard said the hearing would be held as soon as development representatives can attend.
“There was a sort of mix-up in communications. I think the developers were under the impression that this (hearing) was a formality. (Since the meeting) I’ve been on the phone with (developer) Mark Nicholas, and he’s expressed he is more than willing to come down and answer any questions citizens might have,” Howard said after Monday’s meeting. “I definitely think it will pass after (developers) have the opportunity to address those questions.”
The CottonMill Marketplace TIF proposal would help finance $8.5 million for infrastructure improvements over 15 years. If approved, the county would waive 95 percent of the development’s ad valorem taxes while school taxes would remain untouched. County Administrator Don Posey said the two amounts are limits, and the amount could be paid before the time limit is complete.
Before postponing the hearing, the board opened the floor to comments from the general public. Fred Allen, a local businessman with an accounting background, said the TIF financing package is a tax increase which would burden the county.
“We want improvement in our county, but not as a burden,” he said. “(The board should) get the public to (vote on the TIF) like the way the county did with the hospital bond.”
Other public comments also highlighted tax-increase worries, but supervisors countered, saying taxpayers would not experience higher millage if the TIF is approved. If the project proceeds as planned, Mississippi State University is expected to lease property near the Highway 12 campus entrance to the developers for 40 years, Howard said. The development adds land to the county tax rolls, he said, a move which will increase property tax revenue.
“The bond is used for economic development and job creation,” District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams said. “It’s misleading to call it a tax increase because the TIF just doesn’t work that way.”
Howard said many states have used TIFs as a way to attract new developments in hypercompetitive business climates.
“If not for tools like this, you wouldn’t see a lot of growth. Attracting industry, jobs and economic development, it’s not a game of us saying, ‘Look at us ...’” Howard said. “Now it’s ‘We’re looking at your area; what do you have for us?’ Our part of the game is (saying), ‘If you build, we’ll do what we have for other businesses.’ It’s extremely competitive now. You’ve either got to be willing to play the game or be left to the wayside. Our legislators understand that, and that’s why we have this ability.”
District 4 Supervisor Daniel Jackson said developers for the shopping area located near the Highway 12 and Louisville Street intersection approached the board requesting a TIF about the same time discussions began on the CottonMill project. The money, time fame and scope of the project were all smaller than the CottonMill Marketplace development, but the board handled it in the same manner as the current situation.
“This isn’t the first time Oktibbeha County has handled (development) this way,” Jackson said. “It turned around a shopping center that was on a downhill slide.”
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said while he believes the CottonMill project would make a significant economic impact on the county, he wants to hear from developers before deciding how to vote on the matter. Montgomery is currently serving his first year on the board and was not present for the previous board’s discussion on the matter.
“I’m all for doing what’s best for this whole county. There are some great advantages to this project — job creation, a broader tax base — but I’d like to get more insight into this from the developers and organizers,” Montgomery said. “There’s some doubt in the public’s mind, but it would be great if (the developers) could come clear their questions up.”
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he will be in attendance for the next public hearing to answer any citizens’ questions.
Wiseman, too, said he is still confident about the project and the positive impact it will have on the city and county.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind development, a potential game changer for this community. It would stand to be one of the largest ... private developments in the community,” he said.
The CottonMill Marketplace development project would also bring $12 million in state and federal grants for city improvements, Wiseman said. In addition to the nearby infrastructure improvements, a central parking garage would be constructed at the location with Community Development Block Grant funding. The project is also tied to a $3 million improvement project for Russell Street.
“The project is in a very good position right now to be a great asset for the city of Starkville,” Wiseman said.