Warner Robins could have answer to north side redevelopment

chwright@macon.comDecember 8, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Warner Robins doesn’t have a traditional downtown. The closest semblance is a circle of old buildings, known as Commercial Circle, where businesses rotate in and out. Visitors rarely hang around, if they ever come.

Now, the city may have a way to turn the area into a bustling, pedestrian-friendly place of retail stores, coffee shops and restaurants surrounded by attractive landscaping. A hotel and conference center is slated to be the main attraction.

Warner Robins officials say creating a special tax district could spur redevelopment and attract developers to the area, while an expert says it all depends on how the city utilizes the tool now popular around Georgia.

The plan

The proposed tax allocation district, or TAD, would run along Watson Boulevard from Ga. 247 to Diggs Boulevard, which is just west of North Davis Drive. The area includes Commercial Circle, City Hall and a new law enforcement center under construction.

Commercial Circle would become an anchor, Watson Boulevard would be more pedestrian friendly and all of the area would cater to the Macon State College students who attend class in the area, said Gary Lee, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency.

“You’re trying to attract a younger, more student-driven crowd,” Lee said.

The city has until Dec. 31 to notify the Department of Revenue of the new district. Otherwise, it will have to wait another year.

The special districts, which have become common in Georgia over the past decade, aim to provoke redevelopment in a blighted area.

In the year it is set up, current property tax values in the area are documented. Taxes collected from that value of the property will continue to go to the city’s general fund.

When the property value increases, usually due to development, the property taxes generated from that increase go into a special fund. That money can be used for redevelopment throughout the district.

“The areas that you are trying to develop are not going to develop short of some sort of assistance from the tax increment,” said Chan Layson, a Middle Georgia Regional Commission government specialist who helped create Warner Robins’ plan.

Layson explained that development of long-avoided areas typically needs infrastructure adjustments, which a government can’t pay for out of its general fund.

Counties and school boards usually agree to also waive revenue that would be generated from the increased property values until the tax allocation district is closed out. State law requires it to exist until TAD debt is paid off.

Warner Robins estimates the Watson Boulevard TAD will exist for 20 years.

Layson said neither the Houston commission nor the school board has made a decision yet. A presentation was given at a recent county commission meeting, where commissioners seemed to welcome the idea.

How to make it viable

David Sjoquist, Georgia State University economics professor and public finance researcher who has studied TADs, said it’s imperative both the city and county sign onto the plan for it to be viable.

“Typically, the school system’s tax rate is higher than the others,” Sjoquist said. “Usually, if the school system doesn’t join, then a large part of the revenue (is missing) from what would have been there. To a lesser extent if the county doesn’t participate.”

The city’s millage rate is 9.99 mills. The county’s is 9.95. The school system’s is 13.34. A mill represents a tax liability of $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

The 113 parcels of land in the tax allocation district produce $402,779 in property tax revenue annually among the three entities.

The drafted plan estimates the TAD will produce an additional $335,304 annually after it’s fully redeveloped. That increase is called increment revenue.

The school system’s annual portion of the increment revenue would equal $134,404. The county’s would be $100,652 annually. The city’s would be $100,249. Without the county and school system on board, the TAD would have only the city’s increment revenue available for redevelopment.

“In a lot of cases, it doesn’t make a lot of sense without the school board and county signing on,” Layson said.

The estimated redevelopment cost for the district is $30 million. About $5 million would be needed for streetscaping along Watson Boulevard and around Commercial Circle.

The largest project, slated to be a hotel and conference center, is estimated to cost about $25 million. It would be where the current Recreation Department and athletic fields sit.

The city has plans to move the Recreation Department to an undetermined location, creating a complex with fields and pools.

Lee and Layson said after the TAD is set up, the city will try to find a developer who agrees with the plans. If not, another project could be settled on.

“Something else could be done,” Layson said. “The TAD money is not prohibitive from building whatever you want to build.”

Under the TAD rules, the city can issue bonds that would be paid off with the tax increment in the district.

But with the city’s general fund promised in case that doesn’t happen, it leaves Warner Robins taxpayers vulnerable to however much the city issues bonds for.

Lee and Layson said the city wouldn’t issue bonds to fund the entire project. The city could pledge to issue bonds to create a clean slate -- demolishing buildings, and redoing streets and sidewalks -- and the developer would pay for building construction, Layson said.

“Doing the infrastructure improvements and then going out and trying to find a developer is risky,” Sjoquist said.

He said if the city refrains from spending money until a developer agrees to the project, whether a hotel and conference center or something else, the taxpayers’ vulnerability is reduced.

“It’s better to define the TAD and establish it but not spend the money until you have a developer,” Sjoquist said.

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