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The 5 Sends Neely–Gateway Crossing $255,0000 EDAB Incentive Back to the Drawing Board

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  The Parker Neely – Gateway Crossings retail incentive has been on the County docket since late 2015. In January 2015, Mr. Neely's drawings showed 8 development parcels. By November 2015, the project had expanded to 10 development parcels. As reported in Part I, the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) met on February 3, 2016 and approved an incentive on a split vote.

Thursday evening, Feb. 18, 2016, The Columbia County 5 met to consider the EDAB recommendation, which granted Mr. Neely $255,000 over three years beginning in year number 4. The EDAB, after listening to Mr. Neely and weighing Mr. Neely's remarks, recommended granting the incentive without any restrictions or benchmarks. The 5 sent it back to the drawing board.

Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter Introduced the Project to the County 5, Then Surprised Everybody

Mr. Hunter came to the podium and explained, "I've had the opportunity, as Economic Development Director, for a little over a year, to work with Mr. Neely and Donna [Mrs. Neely] on Gateway Crossing." He told The 5 that the project and Mr. Neely had been before the EDAB 3 times.

Mr. Neely presenting his project to the EDAB on January 6, 2016.

Dir. Hunter continued, "The board has vetted this project; reviewed the project as it was being created; and the presentation to the board hinged primarily on an economic development agreement. I think that you have it in front of you."

"Mr. Foreman [Joel Foreman, County Attorney] met with Mr. Neely. They agreed on the language of the Economic Development [Advisory] Board meeting."

Director Hunter then surprised everybody, "After review by the administrative staff of the County Commission, I've been asked that we put some milestones and benchmarks in place for the third, fourth, and fifth year to reflect an assessed value of $10 million of value after the third year; $15 million assessed value after the fourth year; and $20 million assessed value after the fifth year."

"These are asked to be put in place in this agreement as an amendment to the agreement that you would vote on... I did speak with Mr. Neely about that and he did ask if he could speak to the Board tonight on this project... If it's okay Mr. Chairman, I ask permission for Mr. Neely to come up and speak."

Mr. Neely came to the podium.

Where is the Amendment?

Your reporter asked, "Do you have a copy of the amendment? Anybody?"

The County Charter requires all meeting information available to the Commissioners be posted on the County website. There weren't any amendments.

Chairman Nash, "No."

Chairman Nash then addressed Dir. Hunter, "Glenn, do you have a copy of the amendment?"

Director Hunter responded, "Yes."

The County 5, SB-50, Confusion

Known as Senate Bill 50 (SB50), this law gives the public the right to comment on items of action coming before the County 5 – before they vote. Recently, the County has had problems with this.

The Agenda Item, see the first red flag, clearly stated that the incentive request was to be discussed and voted upon. Mr. Neely indicated that is what he also thought.

Your reporter said, "The public has a right to comment on that, isn't that right Mr. Foreman?"

Director Hunter responded, "You're referring to the red-lined agreement?"

Long time legendary Commissioner Ronald Williams, never a fan of an informed public, said, "Very rude."

County Attorney Foreman said, "There is nothing reduced in writing. It won't be approved. This is for discussion purposes."

This was not announced earlier, when The 5 approved the agenda as written.

Commissioner Williams, without permission from the Chair, addressed Mr. Neely, "I'd like to apologize for bein' after youze called up to be suggested to someone talkin' and standin' in front of you talkin'..."

Mr. Neely answered, "No apology is necessary. I think I understand the circumstances."

After the meeting, Sandra Buck-Camp and Barbara Lemley told the Observer that after Mr. Hunter announced that there was an amendment to the agreement, they believed that there was a "written amendment." Ms. Lemley added, "Nobody ever announced that there wasn't."

The Developer, Parker Neely

Parker Neely addresses The 5.

Mr. Neely told The 5, "I think you'll see a tax impact that will greatly benefit the County and the City. We think it's a good project. We expect to make it a class A development. We are dealing with some problems, which is the nature of this agreement."

Mr. Neely spoke about the wetlands in his development. He had already planned the project and had decided to expand his project from 8 to 10 developable parcels before the EDAB had recommended that he be paid the $255,000.

Mr. Neely continued: "We've already got millions of dollars in play on this project. I'm a little concerned about the milestones that Mr. Hunter just presented for consideration... Measurement is a problem. The other [problem] is value. When you talk about value it can be one of several things... I think you are introducing a trap door into this agreement by trying to set these milestones in play..."

Mr. Neely Wants the Money – No Milestones or Transparency

"If you are looking for me to open our books to show you what we've invested -- that's not going to happen. Those are proprietary dollars and we protect that information... I would suggest that creating these milestones is going to add a big section of words that are going to be discussed pretty aggressively with Mr. Foreman -- to determine how we determine value; how we determine milestones being met or not met. It's just too complicated guys... Incentives all occur well after the third year. We're gonna be deeply into this by then. We already – probably have a $6 million in investment right now. I don't know how we can make this project any better by increasing the complexity of the agreement."

Mr. Neely then asked The 5 to approve the agreement as presented.

Chairman Nash Requests Comments from The 5

Commissioner Williams addressed County Manager, Ben Scott, "Ben, if I understand what was just said – the difficulty in determinin' we have reached a milestone. He asked how do you do that? If you got a $15 million project and half done – is it done? Is that milestones are met then or met on completion?"

Mr. Scott mentions the numbers are assessed value.

Mr. Neely weighed in: "I'm not going to sell redevelopment based on an assessed value. We are going to look at it from the market value if we ever sell any part of this project... I think we are putting a trap door into this document... I've been down this path, gentlemen. We've done a lot of development activity... My suggestion is that we have a document right now that was created by your attorney, which we've agreed to, that doesn't put complexities into this document that would be expressed with milestones and the values and doesn't create a trap door where a person or a party or anyone involved in this document can be in default unwillingly, unwittingly, and have to argue that they are not in default... We already have a document. It's simple. Let's keep it that way."

Mr. Foreman explained that Mr. Neely and the County won't know what is going into Mr. Neely's development until it gets there.

Mr. Foreman continued:  "I'll tell you Mr. Chair, if it's this Board's pleasure to put benchmarks into this project and if you give me that direction I will do my level best to reduce it to writing. Mr. Neely's right, it will be a bit of a project, but we'll get it done. My objective is to create an agreement that satisfies at least three of you and something that we can make agreeable to the applicant... I can tell you that your Economic Development Advisory Board had three meetings on this and this was where they came back."

Commissioner DePratter added, "I've known Mr. Neely for a couple of years. He's a fine gentleman. I can take the advice of the Board. We also have a responsibility to protect the public's money."

Mr. Neely responded, "Rusty, I understand. You have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizenry... I can work with Mr. Foreman... We don't want to put a trap in the document.... Let's be very careful about putting devices in it that can't be measured."

Com. Nash Wants to Expedite the Already Expedited Project

Chairman Nash weighs in:  "I'm chairman of the Economic Development Board [EDAB]. We pass on a recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners. We made a recommendation. If the Board wants to add to it; take away; or just dismiss it altogether – it's fine. We did not get into the negotiation of the structure -- the benchmarks put in it -- to protect the taxpayers or to have a base for the next developer to come along... I'm in support of it simply because $255,000 to expedite this project along whether it's 10 -- 15 -- 20 -- $25 million assessed value when it's done, it will be something that the taxpayers can count on for decades as a return on their money... I'm in support of it, but you have to understand we are for taxpayers and we put benchmarks and we are setting the standard to do exactly what you said."

Commissioner DePratter makes a motion: "We instruct staff and Mr. Foreman to get with maybe Mr. Neely and try to develop a working development agreement to bring back to us for approval."

A confused Mr. Foreman asks for direction: "Mr. Chair, can I get some parameters from the board -- You want objectively measurable criteria for each of the three installments? Something we can look at and say -- that got done?"

Commissioner Williams explained (as spoken): "Here is a scenario. Commissioner have one – one scenario of how this should be. I have one which you have – in a sense of speakin'; maybe staff, Mr. Neely. What we want to do is work out a solution to find the common ground that we all can agree on to support the authority and move on. That's what we askin'."

Commissioner DePratter added, "That's where I'm at also."

The motion passed unanimously.


After the meeting your reporter asked County Manager Scott, who took ownership of the benchmark amendments, why he did it.

Mr. Scott responded, "I believe benchmarks help to insure you are getting a return on the investment. That helps protect the County and the taxpayers."

Part I: To Incentivize or Not to Incentivize: EDAB Approves $255k Gateway Crossings Incentive

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