TIF takes top news story of '07
(Daily News, The (Bowling Green, KY) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jan. 1--It was a year of big plans and ferocious flaps in Warren County, as the area continued to grow in almost every way despite some awkwardness. Here's a look back at the biggest issues of 2007, as chosen by the Daily News staff.
1. TIF district: This was the year that dreams of a thriving downtown, cheering baseball fans and a prestigious arts center took on solid form -- maybe.
The years-old dream of building a minor-league baseball stadium downtown meshed with enthusiastic but donation-starved plans for the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, both being rolled into a state-backed Tax Increment Financing plan to accelerate downtown redevelopment efforts. The county formed a nonprofit corporation to oversee the effort, while the city, county and Western Kentucky University agreed that Alliance Corp. of Glasgow would act as master developer.
The plan is to sell about $100 million in public bonds, which will be matched by at least that amount of private investment. The bonds will build the baseball stadium and a 790-space downtown parking garage, plus give about $20 million to SKyPAC, while private developers work on a variety of associated projects, including a residential and commercial development adjacent to Western's campus. The public money is to be repaid by increases in future tax revenues within the 100-acre TIF district.
But the bond-issue schedule is already lagging, and project backers are now planning to ask the city and county for what they initially said wouldn't be needed: millions of dollars in public credit to back the bonds if the district doesn't produce enough revenue to make the payments. And the future taxes meant to repay the bonds won't go to that directly -- they'll be held in escrow until a total of $200 million is invested in the district. If that much isn't put in by Dec. 31, 2014, the state's committed tax revenue -- the vast bulk of the money -- goes back to the state.
2. Drought Warren County was nearly 20 percent short on rain for the year, despite a wet October. The long, hot summer followed a crop-killing late freeze, and sent the Barren River dropping to 50-year lows.
That hurt area farmers, nurseries and lawn businesses and led to calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from Barren River Lake. The Corps finally did so in October -- as rain was coming anyway -- but the city and county asked the Corps to study whether more water should be regularly kept in the lake to ease future droughts.
Record low flows past the Bowling Green Municipal Utilities water intake, which supplies not only BGMU but also Warren County Water District, resulted in region-wide restrictions on outdoor water use and pleas to conserve indoors. Those restrictions on lawn watering, filling pools and washing cars weren't lifted until after the October rains.
3. County shortfall: Years of shying away from diversifying the county's revenue sources came back to haunt Warren County magistrates this spring. For years, the county has relied almost entirely on property taxes to fill its general fund, but the annual increase in that revenue is limited by state law. This year, the county saw several expenses jump dramatically, including stormwater management, gas and asphalt prices, and had no quick alternatives to raise the needed cash.
That left magistrates staring at a $3 million shortfall out of a $24 million budget. In response, they slashed all county department budgets and the amount given to various nonprofit service agencies.
Warren Fiscal Court tried to impose a 10 percent tax on insurance premiums, but heavy public protest forced them to scale back and then abandon the idea. In the end, they set up taxing districts to fund various state-mandated services such as the health department and soil conservation district, and agreed to look at other taxes later. Still, it will be some time before those other sources produce substantial funds, meaning it's likely to be another lean year.
4. Western windfalls: Gary Ransdell, president of Western Kentucky University, announced a five-year "New Century of Spirit" campaign to raise more than $200 million. The plan includes raising enrollment, increasing student achievement, raising faculty salaries, increasing full-time faculty at satellite campuses and doubling online enrollment. But it will cost students and parents, too: The plan calls for a 6 percent annual tuition increase, starting in the 2008-09 academic year.
This is the university's second capital campaign. The first, which started in 1998 with a goal to raise $78 million, ended in 2003 with a total of $102 million raised.
Since July 1, 2005, the university has raised more than $91 million in new gifts and pledges during the campaign's "quiet" phase.
The Board of Regents approved extending Ransdell's contract, pending regular positive evaluations, up to 2022. Ransdell, president of Western since 1997, is now making more than $400,000 a year, including various incentives.
5. Transpark refinancing: The city agreed in November to refinance about $26.8 million in bonds for the Kentucky TriModal Transpark with general obligation bonds, replacing what's left of $25 million in earlier mortgage-backed issues from the county and a later $3 million stopgap funding issue from the Inter-Modal Transportation Authority's county-created sister agency.
Commissioners were formally asked in September, but the idea had been talked about for months beforehand. The previous bonds required the whole mortgage on a parcel of land had to be paid off when the land was sold to an industrial client. That forced the ITA, which runs the transpark, to come up with large sums of cash at each land sale.
The new bonds will eliminate that requirement and push the payment schedule back for a few years, when it's hoped that a county wage assessment on jobs in the park will come closer to covering the bond payments.
Talk of moving the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport to the transpark has died down with an FAA rejection of need-based funding, but two more factories were under construction in the industrial park this year. Transpark officials say the bond refinancing should make it much easier to sell land.
6. Library budget: The county's budget shortfall precipitated a crisis for the Bowling Green Public Library, which lost half of the $300,000 it had regularly gotten from magistrates. In response, the library board planned to close the Smiths Grove library, the only branch outside Bowling Green city limits. The city has funded the library with a half-cent property tax levy for years.
Smiths Grove residents rallied to save their branch, and the library board said it would stay open -- if magistrates passed a countywide library tax. That was done, and the branch stayed open, but tax funds won't start flowing until 2009.
Meanwhile, within the city, the library announced plans to close its Sugar Maple Square and Digital Depot branches, moving their collections to a large new branch in the old Iron Skillet building in the Greenwood area. That brought leaders of the Westside out in protest to argue that the library was abandoning a poor part of town for an affluent area whose residents already had home access to many library amenities. The library agreed to keep a small branch in a building owned by the Housing Authority of Bowling Green.
7. Halfway house: In June, halfway-house company Keeton Corrections agreed to buy the building at 707 E. Main Ave. from social-service agency LifeSkills. News of the plans didn't leak out until October, prompting an uproar from city and Commonwealth Health Corp. officials when Keeton's plans to build a 40-bed halfway house next to a park, neighborhood and several Commonwealth facilities became known.
LifeSkills and Keeton stood by their deal, with Keeton rejecting proffered alternative sites in non-residential areas. In December, the city outbid Keeton for the building, paying $940,000. City officials plan to use it for temporary office space during City Hall renovations next year, but Keeton's attorney vowed to sue for breach of the earlier sales contract. The city's deal with LifeSkills includes defending against any legal action, and footing the bills.
8. Richards' run: House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, made his second and apparently last run for governor in 2007. In January, the man who's been House speaker for an unprecedented 22 years announced from the Warren County Courthouse that he would seek the Democratic nomination with John Y. Brown III as his running mate.
Richards ran in 2004 against Attorney General Ben Chandler, losing narrowly. Chandler lost the general election to Ernie Fletcher, the first Republican governor in Kentucky for 32 years, but came back to win Fletcher's former seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This year, Richards battled businessman Bruce Lunsford, former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear for the Democratic nod, as Fletcher was weakened by a state-job hiring scandal. Richards proposed more money for education and putting $30 million a year into developing alternative energy, but finished fourth in the primary with 13 percent of the vote. Beshear took 41 percent and went on to trounce Fletcher by an 18-percent margin in November.
Richards said he wouldn't seek the governorship again, instead devoting the remainder of his career to "Help(ing) people who want my help, because they have helped me in this race and my political life."
Perhaps chief among those is Brown, former secretary of state and son of former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. Brown said on primary night that he would probably seek elected office in the future, but didn't know which one.
9. Local growth: While final numbers aren't in for 2007, for the past several years Bowling Green has shown strong growth -- and that growth has accelerated since 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Biggest growth sectors were construction, financial activities, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and government employment.
It was a busy year for the Western Kentucky University Small Business Development Center, which assisted in 33 business startups, 29 business loans and $4.9 million in total capital injections, with a record of 256 new jobs created, according to director Rick Horn.
But in the Best Performing Cities Index, put out by the Milliken Institute economic think tank, Bowling Green dropped 10 spots. It fell from 36th to 46th in the 179-member small city category.
The metropolitan area's population has grown to 113,000, with Warren County holding about 101,000 people. Bowling Green itself counts more than 51,000 within its city limits, and another 13,000 or so in suburbs.
10. Beech Bend: The property dispute over a road leading to Beech Bend Raceway Park, big news for local tourism since 2003, finally came to an end in May when attorney Matt Baker sold his house and 11 acres on the disputed stretch to Beech Bend owner Dallas Jones for $535,000.
The two had tangled in court for several years over the last few hundred feet of road that ran past Baker's house onto Jones' property, with Baker claiming it as private property while Jones insisted it was a public road. It was closed for 22 months when Logan Circuit Judge Tyler Gill ruled in favor of Baker's argument that Warren County had inadvertently abandoned the road in a map revision, but it reopened in February 2007 after an appeals court ruled that counties can't abandon property merely by erroneously leaving it off maps.
The road reopening was followed by news that the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, absent from Beech Bend this year, would return to Bowling Green in 2008 on a five-year deal. That could push the park, already the biggest local tourist attraction, to more than 1 million annual visitors, according to Jones.
But the buyout didn't end all road-related litigation. In December, two women injured in a 2004 crash on the road sued Beech Bend and the county, saying that a gate put across the road on Gill's orders should have been marked and illuminated.
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Copyright (c) 2008, The Daily News, Bowling Green, Ky.
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