The Cobb Board of Education on Tuesday delayed taking action on an olive branch offered by the developer of Riverwalk, proposed to contain 236 for-lease condos, 14 three-story townhome apartments and a 10-story office tower.
Developer John Williams’ comments come after the school board filed an official objection to the bonds the Development Authority of Cobb County wants to issue that would allow Riverwalk to move forward with a 10-year property tax break.
Williams says the project can’t happen without a subsidy, “pure and simple.”
On Tuesday evening, while the school board discussed the proposal behind closed doors, Williams sat in the audience, flanked by his consultant, Tad Leithead, and Clark Hungerford, Development Authority chairman. When an MDJ photographer tried to take his photograph, he shielded his face with a Manila folder.
Last week, the Development Authority offered the school board a deal that would provide $139,299 in property taxes during the three-year construction phase of the development. Usually, developers receiving tax abatements are not required to pay any taxes, even those assessed on the raw land, while construction is ongoing.
A communications policy was also passed Friday by the Development Authority, requiring it to alert the school board when it files applications for tax breaks that have the potential to cut into school revenue.
Riverwalk didn’t meet the county’s requirements of creating 25 jobs and contributing $500,000 to the tax digest, but the Development Authority is still forging ahead with the tax break.
School board punts decision making
The school board opted Tuesday to delay making a decision on the Development Authority’s compromise deal.
Outgoing board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said the school system’s attorney, Clem Doyle, plans to ask the Development Authority for a continuance on a court hearing scheduled for Friday before Cobb Superior Court Judge Michael Stoddard. That hearing is when Stoddard is scheduled to consider the objection filed by the school board.
Scamihorn said the school system needs more clarification on the authority’s offer.
The school board wants to see development in Cobb, Scamihorn said, and it would be unfortunate if Williams were to walk away from the project.
“It would be regrettable,” Scamihorn said. “We want economic development, but we have to make sure everybody has opportunity.”
Not granting the incentives would cause the development to move elsewhere, said Hungerford, the authority chairman and executive vice president of Vinings Bank.
“You get 100 percent or zero,” said Hungerford, whose wife, Cheryl Hungerford, is a deputy superintendent for the school district.
If Riverview were constructed without a tax break, Cobb schools would get $7.8 million in revenue. With the tax break, it would get $3.5 million, Hungerford said.
The two parcels that make up the 7 acres of undeveloped land are currently valued at about $6.1 million for tax purposes, according to the Cobb County Tax Commissioner’s website. That raw land generated $46,433 for the Cobb School District in 2013 and $26,803 for the county.
Williams: Incentives needed
Williams claimed that Riverwalk was originally planned to be a smaller development, but at the urging of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, the project morphed into the first Class A office tower to be built in Cobb in 12 years.
Supporters of the tax abatement say the lack of luxury office space in Cobb is sending companies to competing metro Atlanta counties.
“It’ll be the best looking development in Cobb County,” Williams said.
But he maintains the incentives have to happen.
Williams pointed to a situation where the denial of incentives caused a company to leave Cobb.
Hewlett Packard was once based in Cumberland, he said, and wanted to construct a larger headquarters. To do so, it requested a variance from Cobb’s parking code and requested improvements be made to improve Windy Hill Road.
“Well, they went before the commission and they said variances are for hardships,” Williams said.
The commission said, according to Williams, it wouldn’t be bullied into deciding when to expand a road.
Now, Hewlett Packard occupies a 28-story building, Williams said, at the intersection of Interstate 285 and Ashford-Dunwoody Road outside of Cobb.
“My point is that it’s very easy for folks politically to make things not happen,” Williams said. “It’s harder to make things happen.”
Incentivized development is needed in Cobb to bring five-star hotels and restaurants, Williams said.
“When the Cobb Energy Centre was built, we thought there’d be tons of restaurants built around the Cobb Energy Centre,” Williams said. “There’s been just one. So economic development doesn’t just happen.”
Braves’ move not a factor
Though Riverwalk is planned for an area near the new Atlanta Braves stadium, Williams maintains he did not know about the franchise’s plan to make Cobb its home before it was publicly announced.
“There’s some speculation that (Cobb Chairman) Tim Lee called me and told me the Braves were coming,” Williams said.
He says that’s just not true and, even if it were, the baseball team’s move would not have had any impact on Riverwalk.
“I would have to be a soothsayer beyond my normal capacity,” Williams said.
Williams touts investments
Williams’ company, Preferred Apartment Communities, and its subsidiaries would be the anchor tenant of the proposed 10-story office tower.
The company also has an option to purchase the property.
Though documents and emails obtained from the county through the Georgia Open Records Act refer to Riverwalk as the “Williams project,” he takes exception to his name being closely associated with the development.
“When you say ‘John Williams,’ you’re absolutely not being truthful. I have nothing to do with this,” Williams said.
Still, he touted his financial contributions to Cobb and said no one has invested more in the county than he has. Williams said he was the first to use the phrase “live, work and play” in a speech he made to the U.S. Congress. The county later adopted the phrase as its motto.
Williams founded the Cumberland Community Improvement District, where Riverwalk will be located, and is the namesake of the John A. Williams Theatre at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.