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COLUMN

$40 million Maplecrest project: a success or a disappointment?

Drivers seem to like it, but so far new businesses don't -- and that could be a big problem

Saturday, May 24, 2014 - 12:01 am

As a road project, the $40 million extension of Maplecrest Road south across the city's sludge lagoons, the Maumee River and busy railroad tracks has been a complete success. Projected to carry 7,000 vehicles daily, the 1.5-mile highway carries more than twice that while improving public safety and convenience.

As a job-creator, however, it has so far failed to live up to the hype. And while it would be premature to call the massive project an economic development flop after less than two years, it is not too soon for concern – especially when taxes generated by new investment along the route were expected to pay off most of the construction debt.

“Unfortunately, there's not much (development) going on. The project was financed poorly,” said Allen County Council President Darren Vogt, the sole dissenter in a 6-1 vote six years ago that authorized a $25 million bond to finance construction. Vogt's objection in 2008 remains unchanged: that heavy reliance on so-called tax incremental financing (TIF) – the collection of property taxes in a designated area to pay for improvements in that area – exposed county government and the public it serves to financial hardship should the hoped-for growth fail to materialize – and relatively soon.

The numbers tell the tale: According to Allen County Auditor Tera Klutz, the Maplecrest TIF collected just $12,589 last year. As projected in a 2008 feasibility study, TIF revenues were to provide $60,400 to the annual $1.85 million bond payment in 2013, with that figure increasing annually to more than $2 million in 2019 before maxing out at $2.65 million in 2022.

In other words, if growth doesn't occur along Maplecrest and TIF revenues collected, a county fund used to maintain bridges will have to pay down the project's debt longer than expected, leaving less money to maintain or build other bridges.

The forecasts, Vogt said, simply looked at the available land “and said that, if development were to occur, this is what would happen. There was no analysis that it actually would happen. The (economic) benefits were oversold.”

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald, who has often touted the road's potential, also believes it has underperformed as a job-creator. “It hasn't been what we might have hoped for, and I'm not sure why. There's good access, good (land) prices,” he said.

Not everyone is as pessimistic, however.

“How long was Interstate 69 around before it attracted General Motors?” asked Mark Royse, county deputy director of economic development, noting that the highway existed for decades before GM built a truck plant in southwest Allen County in the mid-1980s. “It's just a matter of time and opportunity.”

A big part of the problem, County Commissioner Nelson Peters said, is that the

nation went into recession before the extension opened, making companies far less likely to invest. Estimates of Maplecrest's economic potential, in fact, were based in part on projects that were possible or even expected at the time but have not yet happened, most notably a Wal-Mart and a transfer site for cargo shopped by rail and truck.

“I would be disenchanted if Wal-Mart no longer owned that property (at Adams Center and Indiana 930), but it does. We're behind a little, and if we don't see something by 2019, we'll be off by a little more,” said Peters, who insisted that the extension has improved business for other companies, including those operating in the Georgetown shopping center at State Boulevard and Maplecrest.

Others credited Maplecrest for creating jobs even before the extension opened. In 2008, Vera Bradley's decision to open a production facility in the former Nishikawa Standard Co. plant at 2808 Adams Center Road was widely attributed to the improved access the imminent project would provide.

Ideally, the economy will continue to improve, investment will come and the TIF will provide the hoped-for revenue. Peters said the county even has 100 acres that could be developed, if likely Sheriff Dave Gladieux chooses to end Sheriff Ken Fries' mostly unrealized dream of $22 million training center near the site of the closed Adams Center Landfill. But even that may not be enough. Vogt believes the buried hazardous materials may limit housing construction, and Royse said some of the corridor lacks utilities needed for industrial growth.

A further complication is this: In 2008, County Council doubled local vehicle taxes in order to maintain its 300 bridge. That increase is supposed to expire in 2017 but may have to be extended – or a separate bridge bond sold -- if the Maplecrest TIF doesn't start living up to its billing.

Because the county's other bridges have needs, too, and -- one way or another -- Maplecrest's investors will be paid.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.