The Westfield City Council on Monday night voted to issue a $35 million bond for Grand Junction Plaza in a tight vote.
The 4-3 decision followed a public hearing during which more than a dozen residents spoke for and against the financing plan.
Last month, the city presented a funding plan for the six-acre public plaza that calls for a $35 million bond that will be repaid with local income taxes and tax increment financing.
City leaders have been planning to construct a downtown park southwest of Main and Union streets for more than a decade. The project arose from a comprehensive land-use plan first approved in 2008 when stakeholders developing the plan called for making downtown Westfield a more vibrant destination.
The city plans to issue a bond anticipation note before later issuing a bond. Payments on the bond aren’t expected to come due until after the plaza is constructed. The city will rely on local income taxes to make payments if there isn’t sufficient TIF revenue to cover what's owed.
The property the plaza will be constructed on is within the Grand Junction TIF district. The city expects to use revenue from that TIF to repay the bond.
Monday night, city officials revealed TIF revenue projections to show the city can afford the debt it’s taking on.
John Rogers, the city’s director of enterprise development, said conservative projections show the TIF revenues for the city’s core four TIF districts would grow from $4.6 million to $7.5 million by 2024. But a projection using the growth the city has seen recently shows that figure could grow to $23 million in the same time period.
He added that even with the Grand Junction Plaza debt, Westfield still has the lowest debt-per-capita of any of Hamilton County’s cities.
Rogers’ comments were part of a 30-minute presentation from city leaders defending the funding plan and providing more information to residents.
Comments from residents and business owners were mixed, though the majority called for the city council to take more time to study the issue before voting.
Mike Johns, a local real estate agent, said most of his clients are moving to Westfield because of the good schools, not because of the promise of Grand Junction Plaza. He called the design fantastic but said it was over the top.
“The plan’s been 10 years in the making, and I don’t think there’s any need to rush, especially at this point when there are too many unanswered questions,” he said.
Residents also called for the city to rely on the private sector to fund the project rather than taking on more public debt. And they asked for more information on how much it will cost to operate the park and what the return on investment would be.
Linda Naas, a Westfield resident, said the debt and interest associated with the project is too high. The ordinance governing the bond would allow an interest rate up to 8 percent and doesn’t mention TIF revenue being used to pay for the project. She said after all the money the city has already spent in the area, something needs to be constructed, but she’s not convinced Grand Junction Plaza is the right project.
“I don’t think this is it, and I don’t think you’ve been clear with us about how it’s going to be paid for,” she said.
But many downtown business owners pleaded for the council to approve funding for the plaza.
Melanie Miles, who opened the restaurant Rail with her husband Toby five years ago, said when they began looking for somewhere to open the restaurant they didn’t look outside of downtown. At first, they knew it would be a challenge to open a restaurant there, but they often joked if they held on until Grand Junction was complete, they’d make it, she said.
Now as they prepare to open an ice cream shop, they’re eager for construction to begin.
“We built the Rail and also Cone and Crown in anticipation of what’s to come,” she said. “We’ve been waiting. It’s not some giant monstrosity. It’s a park where people can bring their families, and hang out and listen to music.”
Justin Moffett, owner of Carmel-based Old Town Companies, said the developer has plans to invest $25 million on a mixed-use project on a parcel north of the project. Moffett said the company became interested in downtown Westfield after hearing about plans for the park and plaza. He said construction of the plaza will only result in more private investment coming to the community.
Before voting, councilor Cindy Spoljaric told residents she hasn’t slept well thinking about the project. She has concerns about the financing but also knows much time and money has already been invested in the project.
She said she had asked for figures about operational costs, which she had yet to receive. At that time, Rogers told her the city is currently estimating $700,000 a year for operational costs but didn’t provide any specifics.
Councilor Jim Ake said the city has been planning this for at least 12 years. The project and financing has been well vetted, he said, and the public has been given plenty of opportunity to weigh in.
“To have doubts at the 11th hour doesn’t get us anywhere,” he said.
Spoljaric, Chuck Lehman and Joe Edwards voted against the proposal. After casting his vote, Edwards said he believes Westfield needs the plaza but the cost is too high.