County Council approves plan to create Markland Business Park in 4-3 vote

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It’s been one of the most hotly-debated issues in Switzerland County in several years; and on Friday afternoon in the Switzerland County Courthouse, the Switzerland County Council voted in a close 4-3 vote to approve the purchase and development of the Markland Business Park.

Along with approving the purchase of the 117-acre tract of land at a cost of $2.34 million, the council also approved a bond issue that could total $3.7 million, which will include funds to develop the land for potential business investors; at approximately $500,000 in reserve funds that will not necessarily be used, but will be available if they are needed later in the project.

All of the figures are estimates provided to the council by Jon Bond, president of the Switzerland County Economic Development Corporation.

“I wanted the council to see the high end of it,” Jon Bond said. “We don’t know if we will use the reserve funds or not, but I wanted to council to see the maximum of the project costs up front.”

The meeting on Friday afternoon began with council president Mike Jones asking Jon Bond to present the information on the project that the council needed to see, which included a resolution to purchase along with the financing plan. The package presented to the council included the authorization for the purchase of the land as well as the financing.

Jon Bond said that since this whole process began in May, there has been a great deal of activity in this area of the state with regard to the location of the Honda plant in Greensburg. He noted that with the Honda announcement, the potential Switzerland County site has been drawing attention from potential suppliers to the Honda facility.

He said that six companies have already looked at the Switzerland County site, and two of those want to come back for a more extensive look.

“I think that’s a big deal considering where our project is right now,” Jon Bond said.

He also noted that neighboring counties Ripley and Jefferson are also getting into business park development; but they are smaller and do not have the interstate access that the Switzerland County site will have once the connector road from the Markland Dam south to Interstate 71 opens this month.

Jon Bond also said that the State is behind the development of a Switzerland County site, and is encouraging the economic development group to get the site certified as “shovel ready” with the state – which will make it more attractive to potential companies looking to locate in Indiana.

As for the financing, Jon Bond has been working with a committee of three council members to put the financial matters in place, and he told the council that it is very open-ended and flexible, giving the council the opportunity to pay off the property in anywhere from six months to 10 years, depending on other projects that the county may have.

He also noted that the committee had three goals: to be flexible with the payments; to use no tax dollars; and to create a plan that could allow no changes in the local Riverboat Revenue distribution formula.

COUNCIL QUESTIONS

Members of the County Council had the opportunity to ask Jon Bond questions about the project during the meeting, and the queries ranged from flooding to finances.

Mike Jones asked about possible issues with flooding at the site; and Jon Bond showed the council maps that showed the flooding levels during the 1964 and 1997 floods. Jon Bond noted that although access roads were flooded, none of the land was under water; and that when looking at the 100-year flood plain, all of the property is out of that with the exception of a small portion in the back of the property.

“If it gets to the level where it floods our site, we’ve got bigger issues to contend with all over the county,” Jon Bond said.

Darrell Hansel asked about the process that was used to determine the cost of acquiring the land.

Jon Bond said that state law says that units of government must get two separate appraisals when buying land, and that the purchase price must be in line with those appraisals. He also noted that the economic development corporation also acquired a third appraisal of the property, and all were in line with the purchase price that was paid – which averaged $20,000 per acre.

Steve Crabtree noted that the county needs to have a vision for the property and for the county as a whole.

“It’s not just the site, but where the county is going,” the councilman said. “It’s nice to be a bedroom community, but we need jobs to pay the bills. There’s not guarantees that the riverboat money is going to stay. If the state comes in and take our money, we have to have something to show that we’re using it for economic development.”

At that point, councilman Darrell Hansel moved to adopt the resolution, and Steve Crabtree seconded the motion. That led to more discussion by the council.

“I’m opposed to this,” Kenny Griffin said. “With this figure, I feel we’d be just as good off or better to take this money and apply it to buying right-of-way for Highway 101. Then we could work with the state to make that a reality.”

“I’m not in agreement with this because I asked at our last meeting to begin the process of looking at the possibility of realigning our riverboat revenue sharing plan,” councilman Terry Hall said. “I still don’t know where our riverboat revenues are going, and I don’t feel like I can support this right now without knowing that.”

Councilman Don Covington questioned the overall impact of committing that much money to the project right now.

“Jon said if we’ve got riverboat money committed, then the state can’t touch that money,” Don Covington said. “But what about the rest of the money? If the rest of the county’s money got taken, this land would be safe, but the rest of the county would be hurt.”

PUBLIC COMMENTS

Before calling for a vote, council president Mike Jones asked if anyone in the crowd of approximately 30 people had any comments.

Alton Turner, Jr., asked the council how it could justify spending $3.3 million in ground when a generation has grown up here without any good jobs coming to the county. He said that in spite of what the council projections were, he believed that ultimately this burden would come back on the taxpayers of the county.

“Look at the jail and the courthouse,” John Keeton said. “That was about $7 million, and now it’s down to about $700,000, and I don’t think you’ve felt anything on your taxes.”

“But how can you justify paying $20,000 per acre for farm ground?” Alton Turner asked.

“We’re used to valuing land around here for housing,” Jon Bond said. “But that’s not how industry looks at it. The appraisals say we’re in line with the price.”

“Knowing what you know, when do you think that industry will be here?” Kenny Griffin asked.

“If something’s not started in five years, then we’d sure look at things,” Jon Bond said. “Long term, I think this is a 10-year project. That’s how we’ve looked at it the whole time. A site and some land are not the same thing. It’s two very different things. There’s a lot of different things to consider.”

County Commissioner Craig Bond was in attendance at Friday’s meeting, and told the council that the commissioners are unanimous in their support of the project.

Resident Lisa Walters asked if Jon Bond could identify the two companies that are coming back for a second look.

Jon Bond said that he could not do that, but noted that one of the firms is a logistics industry that provides staging for automotive supplies; and that other is a Japanese metal stamping company. Both companies would initially be looking at employing 75-100 people.

Ruth Lohide of near East Enterprise told the council that she supported the industrial park.

“I personally think we need industry in Switzerland County,” she said. “I left Switzerland County in 1954 because there weren’t any good paying jobs, and I came back 40 years later, and basically nothing had happened.”

John Haskell said that he had been on the Switzerland County School Board for 18 years, and that during that time the schools had operated on a budget strictly on tax dollars, and that it was a struggle each and every year to provide services for students.

“Belterra is not here to take care of you,” John Haskell said. “At some point the county has got to take care of itself. We can’t just sit back and think that Belterra is always going to be here to take care of us financially, because that’s not why they are here. I’m just not sure that the value of the land is true, and I believe that you need a genuine commitment from a company.”

John House from Indianapolis, who has been working with the economic development group through this process, spoke to the council and the audience from an outside perspective.

“Speaking as an outsider, because I don’t live here, the original intent of the riverboat was to promote economic development,” John House said. “The reason that Grand Victoria is for sale (in Rising Sun) is because of an internal problem in a family. Belterra is giving this county the opportunity of its life. While it’s a big number, $20,000 in the long run is going to be cheap. I don’t think you’ll have to wait five years, I think you’ll be surprised how quickly you see results.”

THE VOTE

After a few more questions, councilman John Keeton called for the vote; and when hands were raised, the motion passed by a close 4-3 margin; with Mike Jones, Darrell Hansel, Steve Crabtree, and John Keeton voting in favor; and Terry Hall, Kenny Griffin, and Don Covington opposing.

“I’m not opposed to the project, I voted no because I just don’t know where the riverboat money is going,” Terry Hall said.

“I’m not opposed to the project, either,” Don Covington said. “I’m opposed to the price that we’re paying for the ground.”