Downtown Group recommends approval of TIF funds for Civic Center repairs
The Downtown Development Partnership voted during their Oct. 28 meeting to recommend approval of the use of $6 million in downtown tax increment financing funds for the Civic Center repair project.
The city is planning to bond against the TIF funds, which will extend the Downtown Urban Renewal TIF District, depending on the term of the bonds, likely for another 20 years, according to the city finance office.
The city will then use the TIF funds to pay the annual debt service, an estimated $442,000, leaving funds available for other downtown projects.
The application will likely go to the City Commission consideration in either late November or early December. The city can’t bond till January, according to city officials.
Some downtown and business groups have asked the city to consider expanding the TIF program to use those funds to support private development.
Joan Redeen of the downtown Business Improvement District and Kellie Pierce of the Downtown Great Falls Association are working on proposals that would expand the downtown TIF program to include code compliance projects, façade work for private properties, streetscapes and crime prevention through environmental design projects.
Accounting for funds already obligated, the downtown TIF fund currently has about $924,000 available, according to city staff. Since the district was established in 2012, the City Commission has approved $531,931 worth of TIF funded improvements with $230,109 of approved projects not yet paid, according to city documents.
City finance staff is projecting that the district will generate $1.2 million in revenue annually.
Staff has said they’d research and consider expanded uses of the TIF funds, but have said in many public meetings that they believe the state laws governing the program dictate that the funds should be used for public infrastructure and improvements.
Using the TIF funds to finance the Civic Center project will allow the city to fix the historic building without increasing taxes for property owners.
Redeen said during the DDP meeting that “we all agree the Civic Center is a gem. It is a part of downtown. It needs to be done.”
But, she said downtown entities want to be able to use the funds toward private development.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority and a DDP member said that he was supporting the use of TIF money for the Civic Center repairs since it would extend the length of the district and the Civic Center is an important facility for the downtown.
But, he said, he won’t vote to support the use of TIF funds for other public facility projects until the City Commission votes on expanded programs for the use of downtown TIF funds.
The Great Falls Park and Recreation Center has submitted a request to use $80,600 in downtown TIF funds to replace the roof at the Community Recreation Center.
Steve Herrig, Park and Rec director, said that the project was planned for the spring, but COVID delayed the work.
The city is planning to close the Rec Center when the new joint aquatics and recreation facility is built on the east side of town near Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Herrig said that the roof repair is needed if the city wants to repurpose or sell the building.
Doney said he believes that project should be funded through the park maintenance district funds.
Shane Etzweiler of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce voted against the use of TIF funds for the Civic Center.
In early October, the City Commission unanimously approved an amendment to the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to include Civic Center repairs.
Their Oct. 6 action merely updates the downtown plan and does not include any actual approval of funding for the project, contracts or use of tax increment financing dollars, but the plan amendment was needed to specify the Civic Center as a project eligible for downtown TIF funds.
In June, City Manager Greg Doyon restricted access to the front of the Civic Center due to public safety concerns.
A piece of the back panel recently became dislodged, triggering the evaluation of other areas around the Civic Center, including “substantial cracking and buckling of the front panels,” according to the city.
As a precaution, the city is installing barricades to protect the public from falling debris.
For years, City Manager Greg Doyon has been talking about the need to repair the Civic Center and his concerns for public safety should the facade fail.
During the June 16 City Commission work session, City Planning Director Craig Raymond said if those panels start to fall off, “that’s a very bad day for the city.”
During that meeting, Raymond and Doyon again walked the commission through the engineering report on the Civic Center and estimated $5.5 million project that would include replacing the roof, which has been an issue for the building for years, and replacing the façade panels that have been failing, creating a potential safety hazard as they continue to deteriorate.
Initially, city officials said they would likely need to send the project to a public vote for a bond, but have since proposed to use funds from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to back a revenue bond and pay the debt service.
The Civic Center includes the Convention Center and the Mansfield Theater, and Raymond said in August that “it would be a disservice to dismiss the positive effect those facilities have on the downtown.”
“I understand what people are saying when they express reservations about the Civic Center using those funds, but there’s no question in my mind when you look at the statutory language, it actually puts a preference and an emphasis on public infrastructure and facilities,” Raymond said during the September DDP meeting. “I don’t think anybody could argue that there isn’t a heavy emphasis on public facilities” in the statute.