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Keeping the 'big fish' from getting away

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FOR the past four years, Bartholomew County government has become more aggressive in the competitive arena of economic development. In fact, a number of county leaders strongly believe much more needs to be done.

“We don’t want to see a big fish get away because we’re not ready,” said retiring County Commissioner Paul Franke.

Since 2009, the commissioners have set aside $250,000 each year to be used for “unforeseen economic development and opportunities.”

Some of those funds were used a few years ago to improve County Road 250W, from County Road to County Road 900N, for commercial development. The county now has plans to improve Hartman Drive near the Edinburgh Premium Outlets mall and extend it to Willoughby Drive for the same reason.

Commissioners President Larry Kleinhenz said future investments in the northern part of the county won’t be as large as those from big manufacturers that have come to Columbus.

“Those investments would be smaller because the lots are smaller,” he told the council.

“These lots might attract a restaurant, shop or small office building. But those investors aren’t going to pay millions to fix up the road. They’ll just go someplace else.”

However, it’s not just retailers and innkeepers that recently have been checking out Bartholomew County. Kleinhenz said the county has been approached by a handful of developers over the past five years that included one corporation prepared to create a $50 million project.

That project was put on hold, Kleinhenz said, because the county currently lacks both the expertise and organization to address complex financial needs and inquiries.

“One of the things the county needed with this company was to have a redevelopment commission in place to address issues of TIF (tax-increment financing) and other concerns,” Kleinhenz said.

As the three commissioners urged the County Council to consider creating such a commission, they received vocal support from District Two council member Rob Kittle.

“When a company goes looking for sites, it really becomes a case of excluding or disqualifying communities because they don’t have assets in place,” Kittle said.

“Now, if we are going to compete, we really need to have the bare minimum in place. And that would be a redevelopment commission.”

The commissioners explained that they had examined the possibility of expanding the Columbus Redevelopment Commission into a countywide organization.

However, Kleinhenz said he was told by former Commission director Ed Curtin that current statutes prohibit that type of joint venture.

Fourth District council member Jorge Morales said most council members strongly advocate economic development and want to ensure the county is ready to respond to commercial or industrial development opportunities.

“But having said that, I think there are very many of us who are concerned about both TIF and eminent domain,” Morales said.

“I think we have other things available to us like tax abatement, bonding issues and CEDIT (County Economic Development Income Tax) that will help us not lose the opportunity without having to do the TIF.”

In response, Bartholomew County tax consultant Dan Eggersman said many prospective employers might rule out the county before learning of those incentives, simply because there is no county redevelopment commission.

“We’re trying to load our guns, so on the day someone knocks on our door, we’re ready,” Kleinhenz said in agreement. “And we don’t feel we’re ready.”

Nevertheless, District Three council member Ryan Lauer still feels the county needs to be careful in opening the door to TIFs.

“I think it’s a big decision to have companies come in for 25 years and not fund our schools, police or fire during that time,” Lauer said.

“I think (a TIF district) ties your hands if you have an explosive growth in population, but you are not increasing revenue sources. You need to keep up with that population growth.”

After several council members vocally agreed with Lauer, the commissioners assured the council that they were not seeking to create a TIF district at this time.

Kittle said he does not disagree with Lauer and Morales regarding the down side of tax-increment financing.

“But it would be disappointing to have an opportunity like Decatur County had with Honda to bring in 2,500 jobs but lose it because we don’t have TIFs,” Kittle said.

The commissioners explained that city and county economic development efforts are different for a variety of reasons.

For one, the county does not have a utility department to provide water and sewage services.

Another difference is that almost all of the county’s economic development efforts have been concentrated where rail service has been established in the extreme northern and southern sections of the county.

Those would be the only areas where the county would consider establishing a TIF district, according to Franke.

He also said county economic development efforts would be focused almost exclusively on improving roads or adding rail spurs.

The final difference is that if the county funds infrastructure improvements and attracts an industry that is near the city limits, it’s almost certain that the city will annex it to increase its assessed valuation.

No vote is scheduled on the subject of creating a county redevelopment commission. However, commissioners and council members said they will continue to discuss the matter.

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