Cracking Open Gainesville’s Crystal City

I’ve always been fascinated by geodes, those dull looking rocks found at roadside gem shops in our nearby mountains. If you’ve ever seen one split open, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a definite case of “not judging a book by its cover,” or in this instance, “a rock by its outer layer” because each geode magically opens up to reveal a whole new world full of colorful crystals within its hollow interior.

We have a city referendum coming up this year in Gainesville that could draw a direct comparison to the unassuming geode. But before you jump to any conclusions, please hear me out. I don’t mean to insinuate that any of our political candidates has a personality even remotely akin to a dusty bag of rocks. What I’m referring to is the Redevelopment Powers Referendum, which will be part of the City’s November 8, 2005 General Election. The rather ominous-sounding question on the ballot will read like this: “Shall the Act be approved which authorizes Gainesville to exercise redevelopment powers under the ‘Redevelopment Powers Law,’ as it may be amended from time to time?”

Some voters likely will shrug off the question as meaningless legal babble. Others may go the other extreme and incorrectly interpret it as a government power play, particularly with the recent controversy surrounding the Supreme Court decision on eminent domain. Quite to the contrary, this piece of legislative authority would be a very good thing for Gainesville – and the rest of Hall County, too. It would allow the City to create something called a Tax Allocation District, or TAD. Unfortunately, like the wording of the ballot, TAD is equally misleading.

A TAD is not a tax increase. Rather, it is more like a tax incentive. Here’s why: Local governments are able to use TADs to create special geographic zones within areas in need of redevelopment and that meet certain criteria such as the existence of poverty and dilapidated structures. Within these zones, a city or county may fund public infrastructure needs like a park, new sidewalks, a fountain, greenery and other streetscape improvements – amenities that would be very attractive to a developer who may be on the brink of investing in a new hotel or other building projects for the area.

TADs use tax-exempt bonds as their funding mechanism. Unlike other government bonds, these bonds are paid back from the windfall gains generated from higher property values as a result of new development within the TAD. For example, if the assessed value of a redeveloped TAD property rises from $100,000 to $150,000, the additional taxes on the incremental increase of $50,000 go toward paying off the TAD bond.

TADs involve neither a tax increase nor a millage increase. While TADs only apply to properties within a designated district, all residents of the surrounding city or county reap the benefits resulting from a healthier, revitalized tax base. Schools are a big beneficiary, receiving additional revenues from both increased property values and more retail sales taxes.

TADs have been around for decades and are currently used in 44 states, with the ‘live-work community’ of Atlantic Station in Atlanta being one of the more talked-about beneficiaries to recent date – especially with the recent opening there of the Swedish home furnishing store IKEA.

A boon for Gainesville’s Midtown. A ‘Yes’ vote on the Redevelopment Powers referendum could be a huge boost for Gainesville’s Midtown, the industrial section of town roughly encompassing everything from the train depot on the Norfolk-Southern rail tracks all the way to Jesse Jewell Parkway and E.E. Butler Parkway to the north and east – about 350 acres. Redevelopment plans for this side of town – where the biggest population boom in recent years has taken place inside the walls of a detention center – already are starting to gather dust. But the ideas remain as fresh and close to reality as the ongoing renaissance of Gainesville’s Downtown Square next door.

Just imagine an urban greenway through the heart of Midtown with nature trails, a large meandering duck pond, an outdoor amphitheater, and a skate park for kids. The City’s vision even calls for unearthing the former stream waters of Flat Creek buried beneath years of dirt and concrete. All this in turn could lead to redeveloped midtown lofts and other urban housing, an array of retail and commercial businesses, upscale restaurants and entertainment, art galleries (to complement what we’ve already seen with the fanciful Blue Angel Studio), or a centerpiece hotel and convention center.

Little of this dream, as Gainesville Planning Director Kip Padgett is quick to point out, can happen without a public-private partnership. That is why it is important that our Chamber solidly support passage of the City’s TAD referendum this fall. Right behind Midtown could follow the potential redevelopment of the Highway. 129 Corridor (south of Downtown) as well a TAD referendum for unincorporated Hall County and our other municipalities. The possibilities are endless. We’ve just got to see the forest beyond the trees, or shall I say, “the Crystal City within the rocks?”