Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mount Vernon Urges Quinn to Amend Destination Bill

King City officials are asking Gov. Pat Quinn to amend SB 2991, the STAR Bonds bill to add Mount Vernon to the mix. The Southern Illinoisan's Caleb Hale reports Mayor Mary Jane Chesney sent a letter to the governor last Friday.

In a frank give and take discussion with me this afternoon City Manager Ron Neibert stressed his city's position wasn't as much in opposition to the incentives for Marion, but in favor of granting the same economic development tools to his city.

"We are not opposed to Marion," noting that as written, the bill would place Mount Vernon "at a competitive disadvantage... Why shouldn't we have an equal opportunity?"

Quoting both the legislation and area sales tax statistics Neibert also clarified a point Chesney had partially made during the Senate committee hearing last month.

Section 5 of the bill outlines the legislation's purpose as "to promote, stimulate, and develop the general and economic welfare of the State of Illinois," etc., etc. It's this part that makes it a "jobs bill" as the bill specifically uses the phrase "creating new jobs" in terms of its purpose.

In subparagraphs (J) and (K), the bill refers to the "stagnation of local tax bases" and the "loss of job opportunities" that exist currently (J), and that could get worse (K), if the bill doesn't pass.

Chesney noted the following sales tax stats in her committee testimony and Neibert drove the point home today.

According to the May edition of the Southern Business Journal (p. 12), sales tax receipts from 2005 to 2009 have grown 23.8 percent in Marion, versus just 0.3 percent in Mount Vernon for the same time period. Carbondale suffered a 2.4 percent drop.

Neibert wonders how a nearly 24 percent growth in sales shows a stagnation of a local tax base. Mount Vernon's barely positive 0.3 percent growth better defines stagnant.

Although a new Kohl's store is under construction, Neibert feels the STAR bonds incentives would preclude Mount Vernon from ever landing a Cabela's or other major retailer of that size.

Personally I agree with him on that, though based on demographics and location, I think Marion would always have the competitive advantage, everything else being equal.

He did point out that Mount Vernon had a higher traffic count at Exit 95 in Mount Vernon than Marion did at Exit 54 in Marion. IDOT's Getting Around Illinois shows an average annual daily traffic count 35,700 vehicles south of the Mount Vernon interchange and 37,700 north of it. In Marion the figures are 33,700 north of Route 13 and 22,100 vehicles daily south of it.

Neibert notes the similarity between the STAR bonds and early versions of Illinois' tax increment financing districts that allowed cities to use the state's portion of the sales tax increment, something that is now longer allowed.

As a former city manager in Vandalia he saw how a city could be at a disadvantage when a neighbor up the interstate, in his case Effingham, had the tools in place and the funds generated to land new developments thanks to the sales tax increment that flowed to the city.

It's not just the potential for lost retail opportunities that concern city leaders, Neibert says the legislation has already cost, or at least delayed, a new hotel in the works. If it's not built in Mount Vernon, the developers may bring it to Marion.

[If it is who I think it is, he's right, they've had their eye on Marion for a while.]

I still think Mount Vernon leaders made, and continue to make a strategic mistake in trying to delay the bill, as an amendatory veto would keep the bill in limbo until the fall veto session set for November after the election.

With polls indicating a good chance of a different party in the governor's mansion next year, Neibert feels Mount Vernon's chances are best this year as there might not be an opportunity next year.

However I agree with Rich Miller of Capitol Fax and other statehouse watchers who think SB 2093 will only be the tip of the iceberg. If not next year, then the year after, Miller expects (actually worries about) more legislation for STAR bonds. Miller doesn't like the bill and keeps referring to it as the "worst bill ever".

I think what's missed is the fact that the developers behind the Millennium Development have continually pushed the "destination" aspect of the bill. It's for both tourism and retail, and that it's only justified due to the tourism component, something Mount Vernon in particular isn't going after. Chesney said so in her committee testimony and Neibert echoed that today.

Most residents of the region wouldn't support giving state tax breaks for retailers. I would have a hard time supporting that, simply because like Miller fears, it becomes almost impossible to draw the line.

But it's a different story when you're talking tax breaks for a theme park. The equation changes, at least for me. The retail is "needed" or at least justified, as it's the sales tax that will help pay for the park. It's this entertainment/theme park complex that would make Marion, and in turn, Southern Illinois, a destination far greater than we are now.

Quite frankly, Neibert doubts a $25 million theme park would do that much for the region, but that's just the minimum investment required. The developers were going after a much larger park in the MetroEast, something well over the $100 million investment as required in the Glen Carbon legislation from last year.

The developers are still aiming high and I hope they get their prize, but even a Plan B would be a major boost. Keep in mind Branson got started with the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor play and a Silver Dollar City theme park. Everything else came later.

There hasn't been a whole lot of jobs bills come out of Springfield in the last decade, not since the EDGE program early in the century, something Neibert describes as just helping Illinois catch up with Indiana and Kentucky.

Politically, Quinn almost has to sign the bill. He needs it to carry Southern Illinois and he needs state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, on board, to keep his chances alive. He doesn't stand much of a chance in the region come November without the bill, but with it and a few big announcements from the developers the game changes completely.

The 59th Legislative District is the last rural district the Democrats control. That should be reason enough for Quinn.

As for Mount Vernon, now that Republicans represent Jefferson County in both the House and Senate things might change in 2011 if state Sen. Bill Brady wins as governor, and Williamson County's legislators may then be on the outs.

Personally I want to think Neibert for taking the time to talk with me today. This was our first time speaking. When I described our conversation as frank, I was not exaggerating. It was nothing like a typical interview like I've done in the past as a journalist.

I'm a former Mount Vernon resident and high school alumnus. Two of my classmates sit on the city council and the mayor is a good friend from her days as the high school's art teacher. I want to see Mount Vernon succeed, I just think this isn't the best way.

For Southern Illinois to be strong, all of it has to be strong, Marion and Mount Vernon, and Carbondale and every other county seat and trade center.

Meanwhile as the debate continues, we all wait word on what Quinn will do.

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