After setbacks, Franklin wary of more development deals

A city of Franklin organization spent tax money on plans to renovate a downtown building and to explore an idea to form a not-for-profit to attract youth sports events, but both projects were dropped without being completed.

Two other projects that promised more than $300,000 in tax dollars—a downtown arts garden and a plan to build new restaurant space and shops—haven't started, more than a year after the grants were approved. Several more projects that should have been finished by the end of June are still being completed.

The Franklin Development Corp. now has eight incomplete projects totaling about $1.8 million. The board has extended deadlines through the end of the year for all unfinished projects, board president John Ditmars said.

The backlog of work is why Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness doesn't want to give any new funding to the organization until the pending projects are finished. Board members have been making a list of new projects to take on, such as more façade renovations or fixing rundown homes, but McGuinness wants to hold off on granting any new money until old projects are done.

"Some of these projects, there is a lot of money involved, and some are potentially risky. The money from the FDC side should be a sound investment, so we're not just throwing money out there in hopes of catching that next big project," McGuinness told the Daily Journal.

In the past two years, the development agency offered more than $2 million total for projects that would help spur economic growth in Franklin. Those big projects turned out to be more complex to complete than expected. Now, the organization is trying to pin down details on what is going to be built, how it's going to look and what costs weren't clearly defined at the start, Ditmars said.

Ideas that sounded good, like a not-for-profit sports corporation, turned out to not be feasible after paying for more than $20,000 for professional studies. A $775,000 renovation of the Jarvis Alexander building on Monroe Street was plagued by permitting issues. Other projects haven't progressed as quickly as anticipated because of problems buying property, lining up construction groups or waiting for the weather to break.

The organization's board also was overhauled shortly after all of the projects were approved, so six new members needed time to learn about each project and came in with new questions or concerns, which also slowed the process, Ditmars said.

Board members haven't received any information that the remaining projects are in jeopardy of not getting done, so they've been willing to give business owners and developers a little more time.

"We listened to the stories they had when they came in and asked for extensions, and I can't think that anything wasn't extended," Ditmars said.

The new board has sacrificed time in order to make sure the tax dollars that are being used are going to projects that are well-designed and benefit the community, McGuinness said. For example, he said city officials never had much background or information about the developer that wanted to renovate the Jarvis Alexander building across from city hall.

The $775,000 project faltered when the developer couldn't get state approval for its building plans after more than $200,000 was spent for demolition and supplies. Board members pulled the rest of the funding and are now searching for a new project.

The board is considering a new plan to turn the building into small office spaces but is first meeting with other city groups to build a consensus about whether it's a good fit for the community instead of launching into the work, McGuinness said. In the meantime, the owner of the property plans to consider other offers on the property.

"The FDC now is all about, 'We think it's a good fit but let's vet this through the proper chains. Even though we don't need their approval, it would be sure be nice to have their consensus,'" McGuinness said.

When details weren't worked out early in the process, projects have been delayed as board members or city officials try to get answers.

For example, the day board members approved money for an arts garden on South Main Street, they added a stipulation that the parks department had to agree to take ownership of the garden when built. Park board members weren't aware of the project and spent several months asking questions and debating about what the garden would look like, making it safe and handicap-accessible and whether it could be built for the price quoted. Those delays caused the property owner to miss planting opportunities last fall and this spring, and issues with permitting from the Department of Natural Resources have stymied the work.

"We thought we had a handle on the concept, but we didn't have sufficient definition around what it was going to look like when it's finished," Ditmars said.

Since several projects haven't been completed, the city can't gauge how successful the organization was in spurring economic development, McGuinness said.

For example, the organization spent $400,000 to buy land for a future Ivy Tech expansion, but construction is likely five to 10 years off. The board has promised $245,000 to help former Mayor Fred Paris buy and redevelop two buildings into a restaurant and four shops, but he hasn't been able to buy either building yet because of environmental contamination from the former Sparkel Cleaners.

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