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Jasper attempts to pull out of JDA

COVINGTON - Jasper County has made a second unsuccessful attempt to pull out of the Joint Development Authority and its ownership of Stanton Springs.

Jasper County commissioners agreed in May to resubmit a request to withdraw from participation in the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties. The authority was formed in 1999, with each county agreeing to share costs in the development of 1,576 acres at the intersection of U.S. Highway 278 and Interstate 20 exit 101, a mixed-use project known as Stanton Springs.

On May 20, Jasper County Manager Greg Williams sent a letter to the authority outlining a three-option proposal by the Board of Commissioners: (1) to permit Jasper County to withdraw from the JDA, with the authority to purchase Jasper's share in the project; (2) to sell sufficient land to retire debt and repay Jasper County the total of its contributions; or (3) to defer any future payments from Jasper County until the project is profitable.

A similar request was denied in 2005.

Jasper County has contributed nearly $500,000 to the project so far, but residents there are not benefiting, Commissioner Jack Bernard said. Portions of the park fall in Newton, Walton and Morgan counties, but none is located within Jasper County limits.

"From our standpoint, we're wondering why Jasper County money is going into commercial, office and retail growth in Newton County. We want to create that in Jasper County," Bernard said.

But District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, who represents Newton County on the JDA, said Jasper County has an equal role to play in the project.

"It's really not an option for them to pull out. It was a four-county authority when it was formed, and as I understand it, it's not an option for them. It appears they don't see a need for commercial and industrial development. They are just as much a part of it as any other county. They are a very important part of the process, and we hope they will see the benefit. I'm sure they will," Ewing said.

Jasper County commissioners agreed in 2000 to pay 10 percent of debt service on the project; Newton and Walton counties are responsible for 37.5 percent each and Morgan County pays 15 percent.

All but two of the commissioners who initially approved the 50-year contract are no longer in office, Bernard said.

"We're wondering why we would ever want to be funding this. It's something we never should have gotten into on the face of it. We feel very strongly the Joint Development Authority should let us out of this. We were misled initially that there was going to be industrial growth here. It's been almost 10 years and there's not been one building on the property. There's not been one true client identified as coming into this project. We wonder about the wisdom of having it at all at this point," Bernard said.

On June 2, JDA Chairman Alan Verner, of Morgan County, issued a letter denying Jasper County's request.

Verner said the JDA is making a "patient, long-term investment" in roads, water and sewer lines and other infrastructure.

"To remain faithful to its mandate, the Joint Development Authority must use any revenues from real estate sales to develop infrastructure such as sewer and roads. Moreover, the legal question of whether it is possible for Jasper County to withdraw from or become dormant with the Joint Development Authority without violating a multitude of intergovernmental agreements and bond obligations has already been researched and addressed conclusively in the negative," Verner's letter states. "For these reasons, the Joint Development Authority must refuse Jasper County's proposal as unfair to the citizens of the sponsoring counties who are relying upon high-quality development at Stanton Springs for the future growth of the region's economy, jobs and tax base."

But Bernard said there's no evidence those jobs and boost to the tax base are coming anytime soon. He said more than $700,000 in legal fees have been incurred so far on the project.

"We are really wondering where the money's going. We don't see any buildings; we don't see any clients ... If it's such a good deal as indicated by the other counties, why won't they jump at the opportunity to buy our shares? If it's a good business opportunity for us, it's just as good for them. Either it's not a good opportunity, and they're stuck the same way we are, or they're not using good business sense by buying our shares," he said.

The Jasper County Board of Commissioners discussed the matter again at their Monday night meeting, but no action was taken.

"We're at a standstill. We're wondering what to do at this point. We're trying to figure out where to go from here. There's virtually no support in this county for the Joint Development Authority," Bernard said.

According to Verner, Stanton Springs will incorporate research, technological, commercial, office, retail and residential uses.

At full build-out, the park will contain more than 10 million square feet of developed space and create more than 20,000 jobs.

Stanton Springs has been a finalist or semi-finalist for two Fortune 500 companies seeking to locate multi-million dollar plants, he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.