Incentivizing the Incentives - TribPapers

Incentivizing the Incentives

The EDC's Clark Duncan says this is likely the last, vacant, high-caliber industrial parcel in Asheville. Screenshot.

Asheville – Enka Partners of Asheville, LLC, received the approval of Asheville City Council to construct a distribution center, on spec, on land left vacant after the BASF plant closed. It is perhaps best known now for the clock tower. The parcel would be accessed by the bridge to nowhere, which has been about as unpopular with local heritage enthusiasts as the tower has been beloved.

The developer agreed to maintain and conserve the clock tower on-site with signage and public seating. Another condition for procuring an amendment to the land use ordinance was a commitment to always proactively solicit contractors from “small and minority firms and women’s business enterprises.”

Normally, traffic is a huge concern to locals when large projects are proposed, but there was no organized outcry at Asheville City Council’s public hearing. An addendum to the traffic impact analysis performed for the last proposal for the parcel, according to the staff report, concluded that “all analyzed signalized intersections and approaches are expected to operate at an acceptable level of service.”

This may be hard for people who wait two or three light cycles, twice a day, at the intersection of Smoky Park Highway and Sand Hill Road, to believe. Site plans and building elevations included with the proposal show 98 truck bays and 463 employee parking spaces. For people looking to park a bike somewhere, there will be 23 spaces but no bike lanes. There aren’t even any bike lanes on the busy access corridors, where cyclists are rarely, if ever, seen. The developer has also committed to constructing 10-foot sidewalks throughout the development and a 10-foot paved greenway.

Of more concern to members of the city council, particularly Kim Roney, was the tree canopy. This was the third proposal for the site that she had reviewed during her tenure. Currently, the property is rather barren, with outcrops of broken concrete pads scattered throughout the nicely mowed grass. The city’s Tree Canopy Preservation Standards rate the parcel as suburban, Class C, so at least 20% of the property must be shaded by foliage in the summer. Since the developers could justify covering only 19.6%, they will make a fee-in-lieu payment for the planting of trees elsewhere in the city.

Roney asked what the fee in lieu amounted to in dollars and was told $35,000. Roney said the previous applicant had been liable for $500,000, but Mayor Esther Manheimer explained that was because much more of the lot was going to be covered in parking spaces, not buildings. Roney next wanted to know how close to the site the fee-in-lieu trees would have to be and how long it would take to plant them. City Attorney Brad Branham replied that there were a lot of restrictions on fees in lieu of open space, but for tree canopies, no state laws applied. The municipal ordinance, however, implies “some intention” of replacing the trees in the same “district.” What’s more, the city may collect and spend the tree canopy fees immediately.

Although city council was only supposed to be reviewing a zoning amendment, Roney wished there were some way they could require the developer to compel whatever company elected to operate out of the facility to pay living wages. Given the rarity of large tracts of flat land tied to industrial-level infrastructure, Roney wanted to “leverage” this one but found the proposal insufficiently progressive.

Manheimer explained that council was able to impose wage requirements on the last proposal because the developer had come before council to request economic development incentives for which council had the power to negotiate terms. In the discussion that followed, it appeared Roney and Manheimer viewed the codependent relationship, in which a corporation asks for economic development incentives so the city can dictate terms and conditions for their business operations, as an aspirational goal. The other members of the council didn’t say much.

The only person who signed up to speak during public comment was Clark Duncan, senior vice president for economic development at the Economic Development Coalition (EDC). He said the current project, just like providing education for skilled workers, is a resource the EDC uses to recruit quality employers to the area. While the EDC is not interested in distribution per se, the facility is deemed very supportive of companies that do bring high-skill, high-salary jobs to the area.

Manheimer and Duncan next spoke about how unprecedented it was for a developer in Western North Carolina to invest in a speculative project in order to recruit an applicant for economic development incentives. Other communities do bait with shells, so to speak, and Manheimer said the city recently lost an incentive bid to one such community. Duncan then shared there were “a number of [high-wage employer] leads actively looking at the site plan as we speak.”

Roney next asked, “If this passes today and we do have an opportunity to join in partnership with taxpayer dollars, what does that look like from our end? What levers can we then use to make sure the incentives match our community values?”

Duncan called Roney’s attention to a policy he said had been used by Buncombe County “many times successfully.” Instead of using traditional markers for economic development incentives, like the number of jobs and the amount of taxes collected, Buncombe awards incentives with consideration of social, behavioral, and environmental aspects of a business’ culture. For example, points are awarded for business cultures that are inclusive and recycle.

The approval of the rezoning was unanimous. Sage Turner was attending via phone, and Sheneika Smith was absent.