EDC proposes downtown ‘game-changer’

EDC proposes downtown ‘game-changer’

With the 2012 Major League Baseball season starting in earnest this week, it seemed only natural to use a baseball term when describing the downtown revitalization of Port Arthur.

It’s been in a slump of legendary proportions.

Sure, the police station has gotten a new façade, and the municipal court is actually spacious and no longer sharing a crowded waiting area with people filing a complaint or a police report. But nobody wants to go to those places unless they have to. And unfortunately, unless they’ve got a class at Lamar State, few people seem to go to downtown Port Arthur — unless they have to.

But this past Monday, April 1, Port Arthur’s Economic Development Council passed a measure to forward to City Council that might finally offer some hope to the woebegone buildings and blight that dot the once proud Procter Street.

The EDC proposed a Tax Increment Financing zone, or TIF, that would cover downtown Port Arthur and would freeze tax rates for a time in the area for those who presently own land or property in the area. That would then allow a board and consultants to oversee the TIF to encourage investors to come and build in the TIF zone. And then, if and when private investors come on board and improved property values increase taxes collected, the additional money that is generated goes back into the TIF zone to repay any debt service that was incurred by the TIF and also helps encourage further investment.

TIFs have a time limit to them, ranging anywhere from 10 to 40 years, and all the taxing entities in a TIF zone must first sign off on freezing their tax rates before a community can go forward with creating the TIF.

Floyd Batiste, the executive director of the EDC, said he’s had the idea of making the downtown area a TIF zone for two years, but it wasn’t until recently after a conversation with former state senator and long-time Port Arthur attorney Carl Parker that the idea gained momentum.

“We’ve needed money,” said Batiste, who said there have been plans on the table for improving downtown, but without funding, those plans don’t go anywhere. Parker, along with David Belvin, are consultants on the project and are being paid $65,000 by the EDC to not only get the TIF created, but to then go out and find a developer and investor to get the project underway.

“This money has to come from the private sector,” said Batiste, who’s been a part of the EDC for six years. “When you create the TIF, you create a plan for what you like to see happening.”

Parker said a recent design from an architecture group that would totally make over the downtown area was a wonderful plan, but the problem is there’s no money for the Downtown Renaissance Group to enact those plans, and the group – some of whose members were at one point unsure if they even were still part of the group – had no way of raising money. Thus, the TIF would offer a way for the group to recruit money. Not to mention, as Parker points out, the Port Arthur EDC will cover up to one-fourth of an investment into the downtown up to $250,000.

“This (TIF) is simply another tool in the kit for trying to improve Port Arthur, particularly downtown Port Arthur,” Parker said.

The veteran attorney expressed his dismay in both the state attorney general and the Port Arthur city attorney after money the EDC had earmarked for downtown was held back after the city attorney felt the money designated was not keeping with a state statute, Parker said.

Most of the $750,000 that was designated for the downtown by the EDC has not been spent, according to Parker.

Before the TIF can get off the ground, the City Council must approve it, and then all seven taxing entities downtown must also sign off on having their tax rates frozen for a certain number of years as designated by the TIF proposal. Parker said he thinks the taxing entities would be willing to sign off since there’s nothing going on in the area nor has there been.

Provided everyone signs off on the TIF, Parker estimates he and Belvin could be working on recruiting to the area in as few as three or four months. He feels getting just one person or company on board to improve the downtown area could be all that’s needed to kick-start the stagnant and sorry state of downtown.

“Improvement investment in property is contagious,” Parker said.

Batiste said he’s never lost hope in getting downtown Port Arthur revitalized despite all the struggles along the way that have neutered funds.

“We’ve got people working hard on this,” Batiste said, urging patience and adding that there have to be reasonable expectations of what downtown Port Arthur can be.“It’s never going to be what it used to be, but it will definitely have a much higher quality of life than exists right now,” said Batiste. “I would love to see the council move forward on this. This could be a big game changer. If we can make this thing work, this could be a homerun for downtown.”