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2017-03-15 / News

Public hearing on travel center: pros and cons on incentives

by Ron Gholson

At its business meeting Monday,The Blount County Commission unanimously passed a resolution approving the development agreement between Blount County, the town of Hayden, and High Tide Oil Company, Inc., developer of a proposed travel center to be built near the I-65/Ala 160 interchange. The development agreement authorizes rebate of some $1.5 million in tax proceeds over a period of up to 15 years to the owners of the development. With that vote, construction will proceed, with a stipulated starting date not later than April 15, 2017.

On Thursday, April 9, a public hearing was held by the Blount County Commission as required by Constitutional Amendment 772, which authorizes the granting of tax incentives for economic development deemed to be in the public interest. The purpose of the hearing was to “receive public comment on the development agreement between the three parties,” according to Commission Chairman Chris Green. This article provides highlights (only) of points made by speakers in favor of and opposed to the travel center project. Not every person who spoke is represented – 10 speakers addressed the commission from the podium. Points made by those opposed

• Anxiety and concern was expressed by more than one speaker concerning the lack of information from the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) concerning its plans for redesign, expected to be extensive, of the I-65/Ala 160 interchange and its impact on both public safety and the economic viability of surrounding businesses. Specifics mentioned: (1) 18-wheelers will have difficulty negotiating the roundabouts envisioned by ALDOT in its preliminary design, which became public knowledge more than a year ago, (2) Access to and from I-65 is expected to be a severe problem, (3) All affected business owners should have full information from ALDOT, which they do not now have.

• The full impact on affected parties of ALDOT’s redesign of the interchange should be known before the decision to grant tax incentives and proceed with the ravel center project is made.

• If the county had waited for the market impact to make itself felt following the recent vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages, market forces themselves would have stimulated economic development around the I-65 interchange without county and city governments giving incentives to developers.

• None of the other 200-odd businesses in the area have received tax incentives.

• County tax dollars should not be given to a convicted felon in the form of incentives.

• FBI studies from several years ago show increased crime occurs around truck stops. That poses a serious problem for law enforcement in protecting citizens, because their presence in the area is thin already.

• A legal question was raised as to the technical ownership of High Tide Oil Company, and it was suggested a determination made as to who exactly is the recipient of the incentives granted.

• Predatory pricing will result if the travel center is built since two of the three stations at the interchange will be owned by the same party. The third station (Logan’s) will be undermined in a gas war, the price gouging will result if/when the third station is eliminated.

• The truck stop market is saturated with big stations at both Cullman and Gardendale interchanges. The travel center will not be the economic catalyst it is projected to be. Points made by those in favor

• Amendment 772 was ratified by voters in a statewide vote. It allows city and county governments to give tax incentives to private businesses to attract them for economic development purposes and to provide increased community benefits. Any business can apply for incentive support as long as community benefit is substantive enough. (Lawyers and other professionals disagreed on this point.)

• Granting tax incentives to stimulate and attract businesses has become an established development tool, recognized by amendment 772 as needed – especially for small town and county governments with limited tax bases – to build those bases and flourish economically.

• The incentives granted in the High Tide Oil Company development agreement are on the low side, not the high side, of such deals. Two relatively recent incentive deals on I-20 at the Moody interchange, at $1.6 million and $1.9 million respectively, are among the lower ones around the state, and both are higher the the $1.5 million incentive deal provided High Tide Oil at Hayden.

• The travel center will create 35 to 40 jobs, a first step toward alleviating the situation where 20,000 Blount County residents daily leave the county to work elsewhere.

• The travel center will generate increased tax proceeds for county institutions estimated at: $201,500 annually for Blount County government; $15,500 for Hayden; and more than $50,000 annually for education (included in county government figure).

• The additional economic and employment impact of businesses that will locate at multiple outparcels to the travel center project are not included in any of the above numbers. Their cumulative impact is expected to be greater than that of the travel center itself.

• The economic momentum from the travel center and outparcels will act as a catalyst for even further development. Example: a grocery store, long sought in the Hayden area, is now in the negotiating works. Jolly speaks

Russell Jolly is the developer of the travel center project and an officer of High Tide Oil Company. He has also been a magnet for controversy during the course of the project. He is a Blount Countian born and raised, with family ties in the west Blount area going back for generations. His family already owns a service station at the I-65/Ala 160 interchange, in addition to the travel center he intends to build. He was convicted for bank fraud a dozen years ago and served 18 months in federal prison. He was invited to address the crowd at the public hearing, and did so respectfully.

He began by admitting to “mistakes I made in my 20s. I did my time and paid my debt,” he said. “I’ve been at the (service station) location across from Logan’s through my family for 20 years. I’ve created jobs and sales taxes with first-class facilities. “ (He controls other travel centers and related businesses.)

He concluded by saying he has a deal in the works for a major fast food restaurant at one of the travel center outparcels. He offered to answer questions from the audience. The hearing then adjourned and he made himself available in the lobby for a time afterward to converse with all comers.

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