This blog includes news about City Hall, city schools and other 22401 news.Pamela Gould reports on City Hall. You can reach her at 540-735-1972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Robyn Sidersky reports on city schools. You can reach her at 540-374-5413 or email@example.com.
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Council Races: The candidates on Kalahari
I was at last week’s candidate forum with a video camera, a new toy we’re all trying to learn how to use as we attempt to provide you with more multimedia coverage of Fredericksburg. I’m going to be honest, the quality of the video I took was pretty pathetic. The HVAC system at Fredericksburg United Methodist Church nearly drowned out the candidates. We’ll learn from that, but in the meantime, I did want to share the transcript of every candidate’s answer to one burning question: Do you support Kalahari?
Keep in mind that if all goes according to schedule, the Kalahari votes will have all occurred more than a month before the next council is sworn in. But three of the five candidates in the May 6 elections have been on council during the Kalahari negotiations, and I get more e-mail about this lately than just about everything else, so I thought I’d share their words on this development.
B-J HUFF: I haven’t been part of it from the start, so I’m not exactly sure I’m 100 percent behind it. What I do like is I like seeing that we’re adding new jobs. What I’m a little bit concerned about is how much the city is giving away. I am not quite sure we couldn’t have negotiated a slightly better deal, and I think that’s really what the City Council’s job is. I think that Kalahari did a great job negotiating for themselves, and what I’d like to see is the city do a little more in terms of that, making sure we get the best deal for the city, and I know that with the economy as it is right now, it’s good to have these jobs come in, it’s good to have the $230 million that’s going to be spent here, but I think it’s also important to make sure we’re not giving up too much for that.
MARY KATHERINE GREENLAW: I am passionate about Fredericksburg, I am passionate about the need for us to increase our tourism, and I think that if Fredericksburg wants to be nationally recognized for tourism, it needs a resort like Kalahari. And from what I know now, I’d say it is an asset.
KERRY DEVINE: I am in favor of Kalahari and I’ve made that clear in meetings that we’ve had on council and I’ve been involved in Kalahari since the beginning, obviously on council, but in the room negotiating. And I’ll tell you that we’re getting a good deal. The project would not have come here at all without the incentive package that we have on the table now. It was verified, the public asked us to make sure that we were getting a good deal and we did that, we had an independent consultant tell us that–well, somebody hired him, but he doesn’t work for us, he doesn’t work for Kalahari–looked at the financials, told us we were getting a very good deal, and so I am very confident that it’s a very good situation for Fredericksburg to be in. It really should make us proud that we can attract a business willing to invest $260 million in our community.
TOM TOMZAK: That question has to be answered in the context of the reality Fredericksburg is in. A prominent community leader … describes Fredericksburg as a tale of two cities. It is the tale of two cities. We have a lot of very affluent people who live a mile away from some of the poorest people in the commonwealth of Virginia. We have 17.9 percent poverty. We have a a homeless problem … We have 50 percent of our school children on assisted lunch because they live in poverty. So we have very affluent citizens who would like to freeze the city in time. And then we have a City Council that has to be aware of the needs of the 17.9 percent of the population that lives in poverty. For 10 years, we’ve talked about becoming a tourist destination. David Holder was hired as the tourism director several years ago. We asked the developer of Celebrate Virginia to hold off on by-right things that that developer could have done. … That developer agreed for the good of the city to do this. What the city needed was a resort and convention center that would make it a world-class national destination for conferences. … We needed a resort convention center to attract the medical meetings, the legal meetings. What do we have to do this? We have no capital. We know a city of 22,000 doesn’t have the expertise to do this. We certainly don’t want to hire any more consultants to do this. So, we had an offer. We had a company that was looking at other areas. Jamestown. West Hanover. This discussion did not start with the numbers we ended up with. We started at a lower number. They started at a much higher number. Bass Pro Shops is in West Hanover now, first looked at Central Park. We could not afford the incentives. Cash up-front. Millions of dollars up-front. We are putting zero dollars up-front. We do not have the financial risk of Kalahari, a multi-million-dollar entity, up-front.
[Tomzak was then asked to be specific about what concessions the city got during the negotiations of the Kalahari incentives package that improved the deal for the city.]
Primarily the percents. We went to the mat. … They are going to bring the city one million visitors a year that are not coming here. They are going to market their business to 460 million people internationally. That is a benefit to the city. They are going to provide hundreds of new jobs with benefits. Jobs that we need. They’re not going to have to bring other people here. I work in the health department. My business is increasing with the economy. … Kalahari doesn’t get a cent until they start making money. Again, Fredericksburg has not put up the capital for this. Mr. Nelson the other night said that the next time he does this in another location, the city will have to put up $10 million. We did not have to do that.
DEBBY GIRVAN: I was in the same meetings the mayor was in, and that percentage didn’t change at all. The first offer is the offer you see on the table right now. There was virtually no change in the incentive package. What we were told was that Jud Honaker told us that they wanted 60 percent, but he negotiated it down for us to 47.5 percent. And my response to that was, ‘Oh, how nice of him to do that for the city. Does he work for the city?’ I’m all for business and I think that there’s nothing wrong with a business trying to make money. That’s what they do. But the city’s job is to make sure we’re holding these businesses accountable for what they’re planning to bring here. This is going to be the largest waterpark in the country, in little Fredericksburg. When I first heard a waterpark was coming. I was thinking Great Wolf Lodge. It’s not that big of an impact. And I’m all for economic development. I think we need to be open-minded, we need to be flexible about the kinds of businesses that come here. But I think we need to be very sensitive to complementing our historic heritage. Once a development of this magnitude comes here, it is going to have a profound impact on this community. We can’t ignore the traffic. We can’t ignore some of the impact we’re going to have on full-time residents here. That should be our priority.
[Girvan was then asked, if not Kalahari, then what is Plan B to develop Celebrate Virginia and bring the city revenue?]
Actually, I wrote down … The mayor was quoted as saying, ‘I’d rather have–’ on Nov. 23, ‘I’d rather have 75 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing.’ And now it’s 52 percent of something instead. What I’d like to know is who he was negotiating for, because I think we went in reverse. The city is only getting 52 cents for every dollar they’re generating here in the city. I think what concerns me even more is when we have a poverty rate as high as we do, I look around the city, I don’t see a shortage of low-wage jobs. I see a shortage of living-wage jobs. And when I asked for the Kalahari owner the other evening–and I’d asked the staff also during the negotiations if they would get this number–how many of those 800 employees are full-time and how many are part-time, and they will not give us those numbers. The agreement says health insurance will be comparable to their other properties in Ohio and Wisconsin They won’t even tell us what they offer in Ohio and Wisconsin today, even with a disclaimer that benefits are subject to change in the future. I don’t feel like that’s being up-front with the citizens of Fredericksburg. I think it’s misleading people to believe that we’re getting more than what we may actually get.
[Note: Click here for a story that includes Girvan's dialog with Todd Nelson at the April 8 council meeting. Nelson said at that meeting that he would provide the city with information on what benefits his employees get now, but that he would not attach that to the 20-year incentives agreement.]
[As a followup, Girvan was asked whether she originally supported the Kalahari incentives, but then changed her tune when her mayoral campaign began.]
GIRVAN: No. What I supported was the concept of the waterpark and the concept of incentives. I am not anti-incentive. I supported incentives for Wegmans for very specific reasons. However at that time I knew that we needed a plan and an objective for how we were going to apply incentives so that we weren’t setting a precedent for every new business that came to town. I never approved the incentive package, nor would anyone, nor should anyone on council. I think there’s been a lot of rumor about what was said in closed session. None of us had the information needed to make any decisions in closed session. We shouldn’t have all of the information to make a final decision until we have public input and until this is vetted with the community. We need community support for this kind of business, and I think that if we’re frank about it and we engage the community early enough and we are getting the information we’re entitled to, only then should we be supporting a business of this magnitude in the city.