Four months after a local developer bulldozed the site of a former truck stop, an auto repair shop and a car wash on West Verona Avenue, it is still struggling to come to a deal with the city to put new buildings there.
Monday, Verona-based Forward Development Group delivered a presentation in which it publicly explained why the city should provide $6 million in taxpayer financing for the company’s Sugar Creek Commons project. The projected $40 million venture would bring 284 apartments, a hotel and 26,000 square feet of retail space between Legion Street and the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.
But after an hour long closed session, the Common Council had no announcement other than the mayor’s statement that negotiations would continue.
It’s been more than two years since the city created a tax-increment financing district specifically for the project. A TIF district, or TID, collects taxes from all underlying jurisdictions, including the local school district, on any increases in the property value and uses that money to pay back loans or obligations that benefit the district.
But the city and developer – which have two other major projects pending in Verona – have been unable to come to an agreement.
During Monday’s meeting, FDG discussed a timeline based on an approval of the terms that night, in which it would start site work in November and build out the entire project over the next three years.
Afterward, FDG representative Ron Henshue told the Press he did not yet know how the rejection of those terms would affect the timeline.
He and his colleagues faced a similar situation in June and again in July, when alders discussed both the proposal and financial information related to the project.
At that time, Henshue told the Press contractors were ready to go and he had to delay the start of the project, but hoped to get an agreement within a month. And city administrator Adam Sayre told the Press the city’s financial adviser, Minnesota-based Ehlers, was still collecting information to help alders determine the legitimacy of FDG’s claim that the entire $5.4 million developer incentive and $565,000 environmental remediation cost was necessary to make the project happen.
At Monday’s meeting, FDG asserted that Ehlers concluded it was, but alders weren’t so sure.
Afterward, Ald. Evan Touchett (Dist. 4) expressed frustration with the entire process and called FDG “difficult to work with.” Touchett, the Public Works committee chair, said he’d had similar problems getting needed information or changes made with the Whispering Coves subdivision FDG is working on for the city’s north side.
Ald. Christine Posey (D-1) also was fed up, telling the three-person FDG delegation in attendance she did not like seeing rubble at the site on her way to and from work every day.
“I’m boiling here,” she said. “That is really challenging to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to support you in this building,’ when the property has been left a mess for several months.”
In May, demolition crews took down the commercial buildings along West Verona Avenue but not the 24 apartments on Topp Avenue behind it. Those remain in use, Henshue reported, and even more of them are occupied than when FDG purchased the property.
Ald. Sarah Gaskell (D-2) called out the developer publicly, as well, complaining about seeing flyers advertising a 14 percent rate of return for investors while the company was asking for city money. She also alleged that part of the reason TIF was needed was that the group overpaid for the properties, totaling about $6 million for 10 acres.
FDG attorney Dan O’Callaghan explained that paying “a premium” was necessary to piece together 10 adjacent properties owned by different people and that the rate of return was also necessary to gather the amount of capital needed to do the project.
He said the cost of all the land, infrastructure, remediation and construction exceeds the project revenue and overall value
“The value of what’s created, the cost to create it – there’s a gap,” he said. “The largest component of the TIF is to fill that gap.”
His presentation noted that the $40 million value of the project would bring in about $900,000 a year and close the TID within about 10 years of construction starting.
He also put particular emphasis on a segment of the project reserved for affordable or workforce housing, a topic several alders and the mayor have brought up repeatedly.
He defined the term “affordable” through a planned partnership with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.
That would ensure 20 percent of the rear building’s units, or 26 of them, would be limited to the typical housing cost (30 percent) for a household making 80 percent of the median income. In Dane County, he said, that income level is $75,000 for a family of four.
His presentation showed a two-bedroom unit costing $1,093, just below the average housing cost in Dane County, while market rates for that same unit would be $1,824.