The Gainesville and Hall County Development Authority voted Tuesday to approve, among other items, a “Repayment Agreement” between the county and Kubota Manufacturing of America over the purchase of 180 acres in the Gateway Industrial Centre in North Hall.
The agreement stipulates that if Hall County fails to meet three previously agreed upon stipulations — the construction of a public access road into the industrial park, the relocation of a cell tower on the property and a local property tax abatement — Kubota can sell the land back to the county.
The stipulations are all part of a $100 million expansion of Kubota’s existing presence in the area, which has been at the forefront of the Development Authority’s agenda since October.
According to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, the expansion will bring an additional 650 jobs to the 1,300 workers the company already employs in Gainesville.
According to Tim Evans, vice president of Economic Development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the road construction and cell tower relocation were both projects county officials already knew they would have to act on eventually.
“We’d always planned to (build a public access road) for (Gateway Industrial Centre),” Evans said. “In fact, the original plans had this road coming all the way through, so this is going to be a much lower expense than having to come in and build the entire road.”
The road will cost an estimated $3 million, which will be funded with revenues from the special purpose local option sales tax.
The Development Authority also approved the execution of a consulting agreement with Engineering Associates Inc., a private firm that has previously consulted with Hall County on the construction of cell towers, to advise it in the relocation of the tower.
“There’s 12 years remaining on this lease (for the cell tower), so we knew all along we were going to have to deal with (moving) this out of the center of this site,” Evans said.
While the local property tax abatement is only “part of (the deal),” according to Evans, Commissioner Craig Lutz, who has previously spoken out against Hall County’s decision to allocate SPLOST funds towards the construction of the road, says this development is news to him.
While Lutz said he couldn’t “comment intelligently” on the approval of the tax abatement, he said he doesn’t recall it being discussed or proposed at any previous meetings about the project.
Lutz previously voted against the decision to allocate SPLOST dollars to the construction of the public access road, on the grounds that when voters initially approved SPLOST VI, “nowhere on (the ballot) was there a business park.”
The SPLOST controversy, in addition to the quick rezoning of the industrial park property to accommodate Kubota, are not the only issues that make the lucrative business deal appear less than transparent.
Philip Wilheit, chairman of the Gainesville and Hall County Development Authority, recused himself from Tuesday’s vote following criticism over his business partner’s previous transfer of the industrial park’s land to the Development Authority in 2012, as well as his position as the chairman of Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election campaign.
When the Kubota deal was announced just before the gubernatorial election, Deal’s political opponents accused him of ushering it through to secure last-minute votes.
Deal also helped move the state poultry lab, an anchor tenant for the complex, into Gateway.
“I can certainly sense the frustration that the public would have because I’m on the commission, and I don’t know all the answers or all the details (of the Kubota deal),” Lutz said. “The one concern that I would have is as a commissioner that represents a portion of the county, if I’m not fully informed on what’s going on, and I’m supposed to be representing the public, I do think that’s a problem with the process.”
Lutz says real estate and construction deals frequently proceed quickly and without much consultation of the public so as to prevent competing parties from getting involved and diminishing an area’s chances of bringing in strong economic partners.
As in the case of the new Atlanta Braves stadium being constructed in Cobb County, “nobody knew that was happening until it happened,” Lutz said.
Evans attributed the timeliness of the project to the traditional ebb and flow of the market for Kubota’s products.
“These projects are always driven by business need,” Evans said. “It’s up to us to figure out how to respond at the speed businesses need us to.”
And if any corporate entity should receive the benefit of the doubt, Lutz says, it would be Kubota. T
The business has been “an outstanding corporate citizen” since it moved into the area, even going so far as to cut the grass for much of Gainesville’s parks and green space.
“They are the one corporate citizen I would like to see move in,” Lutz said. “Whether or not that justifies the means, it’s hard to really say.”