Trust me when I say finding myself on the same side of an issue with muttering cranks like former lounge singer Ron Gomez and the Tea Party gives me pause. But this sweetheart Costco deal says more about the breadth of opposition it created in a very short time.
Contrary to developer Stirling Properties’ clever talking points, this isn’t about the Teapsters. I knew the merits of the proposal were in question from the very outset when the best defense of the deal proponents could muster was the Tea Party was against it, hence reasonable people should be for it. No, the problems with the deal transcend usual nutty Teapster themes. Fact is Stirling has finessed a fabulous deal for itself worth many millions with the assistance of political insiders like City-Parish President Joey Durel and others, without whose active support the deal would never have been possible. Sadly, the deal undeniably siphons years of desperately needed future property tax revenue from public entities like Lafayette schools to pay for infrastructure in and around the development (which, in the end, helps line Stirling’s pockets). Ask Superintendent Pat Cooper about the Stirling/Costco giveaway of millions in taxes not going to Lafayette public schools. His reaction? We should have considered other solutions. And the money will be badly missed.
There are many false claims associated with this slippery deal. Among the most disappointing comes from our normally clear-headed mayor himself. He’s quoted in multiple media accounts saying if we didn’t give Stirling the millions some other city would. But the deal is done. So we will never know. This argument, however, thinner than a Bourbon Street stripper’s lingerie, purports to scare us into believing some other area town (think the dynamic metropolises of Opelousas or New Iberia) would make a similar offer onto which Stirling would have immediately pounced.
Ok, maybe there’s another interpretation of Joey’s forecast of doom had we not given Stirling Properties the school board’s money. It would go like this. Costco, pissed that we refused, would have picked up its toys and moved on to a similar size market in another state. This assertion, however, omits what Stirling surely knows but our public servants who drank the promoter’s Kool-Aid possibly don’t. While there certainly are many other markets the size of the Lafayette metro that qualify by population, only a precious few of them in today’s weak nationwide economy have the booming environment Costco seeks. Who does have that? We do, here in Lafayette. We held a far better hand in negotiations, but then we just folded.
Another claim made by Stirling representatives was their Costco deal was Lafayette’s chance of a lifetime to benefit from big sales taxes generated by the prized Boustany property. True, Costco will generate a lot of sales taxes and ultimately property taxes in this highly desirable location, but this logic carries with it a question not addressed: Who believes, in this roaring Acadiana economy, other deals from other developers for the property, not encumbered by costly giveaways, wouldn’t be far behind? There are precious few sites, if any, of the size and location the Boustany property offered. Almost certainly there would have been other offers that followed, free of the PILOT tax giveaway.
Then there’s the fundamental question of what makes worthwhile the giveaway of millions in public revenue through TIFs and PILOTS. Don’t ask the Teapsters; they’ll tell you virtually nothing does. In fact, these programs can be of enormous economic and social value. Think only about the superb benefit created by the north Lafayette TIF, a Stirling Properties project that brought in a Target and numerous other quality retailers to residents who had been forced to drive across town for the goods and services they enjoy today, only minutes from their homes. Unlike the slick, quick, well-rehearsed vote that came down Tuesday night at the Industrial Development Board meeting, we need a genuine public discussion about what makes a project truly worthy of giving away badly needed local tax revenue. Hopefully this Stirling/Costco giveaway will become an object lesson for us in the future about how not to do it.
Expect more from The IND on this topic.
Steve May is co-publisher of IND Media, parent company of ABiz and IND Monthly.
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