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SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2005
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Funds for interchange
Calvary, Decatur officials discuss plan to use sales taxes from future development

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer

mburkey@decaturdaily.com 340-2441

A preliminary move toward an interstate-style interchange is under way for Calvary Assembly of God's building site on Alabama 20.

Officials with Decatur and Calvary are trying to draft a City Council resolution tentatively supporting a plan to use sales taxes from a related commercial development at the site to pay for the interchange.

For a while last week it looked as if the city would reject the nonbinding resolution and church officials would ask the Alabama Department of Transportation for up to three stop lights in front of their 182-acre site between U.S. 31 and Interstate 65.

Church officials asked the council in December for support to pursue tax-increment financing for an interchange.

They offered then to finance, build and assume liability for an interchange with ramps and an overpass instead of curb cuts and stop lights, which could strangle one of the city's major transportation arteries.

In return, the church asked that the cost of the interchange be paid by city sales tax from the restaurants, offices and stores it plans to draw around the church site.

The council turned over the idea to Mayor Don Kyle, who asked the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce to investigate. Chamber officials drafted a rough resolution, based on talks with church officials, and sent it to City Attorney Herman Marks Jr.

Marks reportedly told Council President Billy Jackson the draft might have the effect of committing the city to an agreement.

Jackson related that to church officials and suggested they didn't need anything from the city to explore any financing they desired. Church officials replied that there was no point spending thousands of dollars pursuing the TIF option if council members philosophically opposed the concept under any circumstances.

Stoplights

Late last week, Calvary was ready to hire a consultant to do a traffic study on the site and ask DOT for three stoplights.

Council members intervened to get both sides talking again about a resolution, which could go to the council for approval Monday or March 7.

Jackson said last week he felt the council was being pressured with the resolution to do something to which the city couldn't commit.

But the city needs to support development along Alabama 20, he added.

"I didn't understand why they need a recommendation from us to go forward," Jackson said. "I'm not a big advocate of doing TIFs, but if that's what it takes for us to get this project done, by no means am I not going to look at that. I think everybody is looking forward to seeing what we can do out there. But they don't need a recommendation from the council to explore other funding options."

Blake Robbins, chamber vice president of business and work-force development, said he didn't expect city officials to assume the resolution he drafted was a final, non-negotiable document.

"It's not committing to anything as a council — just do they want the church to explore ways to make this TIF district happen," he said. "I think they could put in some sort of nonbinding language, but they took the resolution as written. I'm not an attorney. It was just a starting point, but they took it literally and wouldn't introduce it.

"We cannot afford as a community to put three red lights on that road," Robbins added. "That's fairly easy to see. If we give up, that's exactly what's going to happen."

By 10 a.m. Monday

Marks said he expected to meet with Calvary officials, although a resolution for the council might not be ready for Monday's 10 a.m. business meeting.

"They presented something to the council," he recalled last week. "I'm not exactly sure where the council is on it. My suggestion is going to be, we need to sit down with the officials from Calvary and see what they're looking for. I haven't seen the full proposal. It's a positive thing. It just needs a little more talk time."

Councilman Ronny Russell said he supports a carefully worded resolution that doesn't commit the council to a TIF agreement under unknown circumstances. Three traffic lights on the busy highway would be "extremely unsafe," he added.

"All we can say is, we want to see this pursued," he said. "We can't say we'd support a TIF because we don't know what they'd come back with. We've never done a TIF. I think there's hesitation to jump into that cold water. It doesn't mean we don't support what Calvary wants to do."

The section of Alabama 20 may need a temporary traffic light, Russell said.

City officials said they hope the property, now in an unincorporated island of land in Limestone County, can eventually be annexed into Decatur and bring with it property taxes, even while sales taxes are diverted to pay for the interchange.

"To know that we're sitting around with lights, waiting on the federal government to help us out, would be unacceptable," Russell said. "Property tax would still come to the city and schools would benefit from that.

"And an overpass would be a catalyst for the entire area. Something is going to happen on that stretch. It needs to be something that is good for the city of Decatur and part of the city of Decatur. If we lose out, it's a black eye for us."

Church plans

Jay Davis, operations manager for the church project, said he doesn't expect the city to commit to an unknown deal. But the church continues to field interest on its Beltline Road Southwest sanctuary. It's paying on the Alabama 20 property and drawing plans for the site. It can't wait any longer to start planning for how to get 2,000 church members in and out of the property.

"To be fair to the council, it's not like they don't have anything else going on," Davis said. "We're not going to go out and spend X number of dollars and put this together, and the council say, 'We don't care about this.' We've talked to every council member individually, and nobody's given us a negative, but nobody's given us a formal attaboy either."

Davis said the church is proceeding with a private traffic study with or without a council resolution to determine exactly what kind of entrance the church needs. It could be stoplights or an overpass with ramps that retains the limited-access nature of the highway, which Decatur officials want to preserve.

"Our first choice is to have an interchange," Davis said. "An interchange could take years. We don't have years. It could be a single light for some period, depending on how quickly DOT works to approve this, how quickly we sell our building, how quickly we get a TIF authorized. We're not mad. We're just going on."

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