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Gainesville to consider creating joint opportunity zone

Gainesville City Council members are expected to consider creating a joint opportunity zone with Hall County at their Tuesday meeting.

The council heard a presentation on the West Gainesville-Hall County Opportunity Zone, a tax credit program, from Jonathan Gelber, a senior consultant with Bleakly Advisory Group.

It would allow companies that move into or expand in the zone to get a $3,500 tax credit for each new job created.

The first phase of the zone would include 805 acres and 409 parcels of land around the Lakeshore Mall, Atlanta Highway, Browns Bridge Road and within Industrial Park West.

Gainesville has a downtown/midtown opportunity zone that was created in 2010, according to the state Department of Community Affairs website. The zones are active for 10 years.

“The program was originally conceived to be sort of an urban redevelopment tool,” Gelber said. “But it’s more used now for economic development.”

The City Council and the Hall County Board of Commissioners approved an urban redevelopment plan in July 2012, and the city is considering a resolution to create the west Gainesville zone. DCA officials must sign off.

The plan identifies three areas it calls “Economic Opportunity Gateways,” including Browns Bridge Road and Atlanta Highway, the Ga. 365 corridor, and Candler Road.

The plan has 3,335 tax parcels of land in Gainesville and unincorporated Hall County on more than 16,000 acres.

“I couldn’t help think that the major theme of this whole thing is jobs, jobs, jobs,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “In real estate, you have location, location, location, and I think eventually this area could become one of those things where people say ‘This is a great location to relocate, to brings jobs to and to clean up blighted areas.’”

The tax credits would be available to any business inside the zone, but in return it has to create at least two full-time, permanent jobs. The pay has to be higher than the lowest average county wage in the state, which is currently $435 a week or $22,620 a year. Companies can get the tax credits annually for five years per job.

“All you are approving in this resolution are the parcels in the city of Gainesville,” Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said. “Hall County would only be approving the parcels in Hall County. If they decided for some reason not to move forward, that’s not going to impact us, we can continue forward.”

Opportunity zones must meet certain criteria, such as being in the redevelopment plan area and being in or near geographical areas where there’s a large amount of poverty. The basis for the current zone application includes vacant parcels of land, crime and deteriorating infrastructure.

Gelber said he hopes to get the zone approved by the end of the year. It would be retroactive to Jan. 1.

Ligon said they want several zones in place by Dec. 31.

In other business, the council members are also expected to consider approving an increase in the city’s water and sewer rates. Water rates for city service would increase by 3.5 percent, wastewater sewer rates would rise by 1.75 percent and the account service fee would go from $4.00 to $4.25.

The “per unit” water charge for residents living in Gainesville would go from $2.44 to $2.53 and from $7.26 to $7.39 for sewer. The percentage change is the same for Hall County residents, but water rates are twice the city rates.

County “per unit” rates would increase from $4.88 to $5.06 for water, but sewer rates would match the city rate of $7.39. The city of Oakwood sewer rate, which isn’t subsidized, would go from $8.16 to $8.40 per unit.

Councilman Bob Hamrick said in March the city has the differential for the services it provides in the county because it gets no benefit for them.

Low to average users would see an increase of about 95 cents to about $2.34, Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said.

If approved, the new rates would take effect Jan. 1. Council members discussed having some community meetings to explain the new rates.

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