Another tool in the toolbox

Charles Pointe developers seek tax deal to help pay off bonds

The Exponent Telegram

July 6, 2011

By  Matt Harvey

       Assistant Managing Editor

BRIDGEPORT – The developers of Charles Pointe hope to move a step closer Thursday to completing the proposed $1.4 billion mixed-use, master-planned community.

At 10 a.m. at the County Courthouse in Clarksburg, Harrison County commissioners will take public comments on a new proposed break for developer Genesis Partners.

The idea:  As features are added – such as hotels and other retail establishments – a percentage of the corresponding consumer sales and service taxes could be used by developers to pay off new bonds.

The proposal to create the Charles Pointe Economic Opportunity Development District would allow for the issuance of up to about $400 million in bonds.  That’s according to the approximately 2-inch thick application submitted by Genesis Partners to the West Virginia Development Office.

Rob Stuart, director of planning and engineering for Genesis Partners, said the money likely would be drawn down in phases.

“As the taxes are generated, we’ll begin to fund projects,” Stuart said.

County commissioners Bernie Fazzini, Ron Watson and Mike Romano insist the proposal isn’t a new tax, and indicate references to it as an “excise tax” conjure up inaccuracies.

The 1,700-acre development still would pay sales tax into the general fund.  But collections above and beyond the base that’s being paid now would be available to the developers over perhaps a 20 – or 30-year period, according to documents and officials interviewed Tuesday.

Romano and Watson termed the proposal perhaps “another tool in the toolbox” for development.

A glance at West Virginia Code appears to show one other place in the sate that has used a similar method.  Ohio County’s “Fort Henry” economic opportunity development project district comprises 300 contiguous acres of land.

That county’s commission can “levy a special district excise tax” for its benefit, according to the code.  The “Fort Henry” project is the site of the state’s only Cabela’s outdoor goods store.

“Basically what happens, rather than the monies going into the state coffers, they allow a portion of those monies to come back to the project to benefit the area where those taxes are generated,” Stuart said.

“It’s really a good tool, … It’s to the benefit of our communities rather than a statewide thing.  Of course at the end, there’s a windfall to the state.  So I think everyone wins in the deal,” Stuart said.

Harrison County commissioners indicated they want to see what the public has to say.

They also are continuing to study the matter, although Romano doesn’t believe it puts any county funds in jeopardy.  The county’s bond counsel on this project, Thomas L. Aman Jr., of Steptoe & Johnson, wasn’t available for comment Tuesday.

If commissioners approve a resolution in support of the opportunity district, the matter goes to the Development Office.  A review there takes about 30 days, Stuart said.

If that agency approves the plan, it then would go to the Legislature, presumably during the session starting in January.  But Stuart naturally wouldn’t be opposed to a special session to address the issue; “that’d put us that much further ahead.”

Stuart also said they believe they have “strong political support across the board.”

The Charles Pointe development was announced more than a decade ago, envisioned as a $750 million project at the time.  The cost is now about twice that at about $1.4 billion, according to the application.

What’s been done so far, according to the application:  6.7 miles of utility infrastructure; 2.7 miles of roads and streets; 273,900 square feet of commercial/office space; 149 residential units; 202 hotel rooms; and 15,000-square foot Bridgeport Conference Center.

Some parts of the original plan, including golf, have been removed.  That change was made when the national trend in 2006 showed more golf courses closing than opening, Stuart said.  Still in place, though are 20 planned miles of recreational trails.

Other ideas have been added.  Stuart said a 130,000 square foot conference/convention center is now planned that would cater to “more of larger civic uses” but not displace the current center.

A themed “resort-type hotel” also is planned that would have about 250 rooms, Stuart indicated.  Asked if gambling was planned for that facility, he replied, “not at this time.”

Still in place:  A memorandum of understanding with West Virginia University “to work together to kind of create a place for WVU and a presence in this area.”

Genesis President James A. Corton initially had thought, if the economy held out, that Charles Pointe might be done by now or perhaps getting close to it.  Corton was not available Tuesday.  Stuart said the economy has had an impact on the project, “but I do think we’ve weathered that.”

The timeline to finish building out now is about 20 years, Stuart said.  And the application cites figures from a 2004 economic impact projection.

So, how would Stuart answer skeptics who see a lot of empty spaces still at the development that straddles W.Va. 279?

He acknowledged some people will note that four-lane highway was completed several years ago and ask, “Where are you at?”

But the land is about 2 miles long and about a mile wide, and would “pretty much cover the map” if dropped over Charleston, Stuart said.

“People just expect to see things happen faster than reality might let it happen,” Stuart said.  “It is a massive piece of ground; it will take some time.”

But put in perspective, ‘It’s gone along all right,” he said.