Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer assured the 30 or so in attendance at Thursday’s St. Clair Enhanced Enterprise Zone public hearing that the county would not support the project if it wasn’t sure it would be beneficial.
Griesheimer’s comments came close to the end of the hearing and after several individuals, most of whom reside in the Villa Ridge area, voiced their opposition to being included in the proposed zone.
Griesheimer and the county’s two other commissioners, Tim Brinker and Mike Schatz, joined St. Clair officials, aldermen, EEZ advisory board members and state representatives from the department of economic development for Thursday’s hearing. The hearing is a requirement for the EEZ application process and is one of the final steps in the journey in asking for the zone.
“Create jobs and spur development, this is what this (EEZ) is all about,” Griesheimer said. “I feel it’s the right thing to do. I am in strong support of what we’re trying to do here, and this is a good thing for Franklin County.
“If I thought this was a bad thing, I wouldn’t be for it. ... I hope we get to the finish line with this.”
An Enhanced Enterprise Zone is an economic development tool designed to assist communities that qualify. It is based on demographic criteria that includes U.S. Census data, unemployment and poverty statistics and the presence of blight.
In order to qualify, the unemployment rate in the targeted area must be higher than county and state figures, and 60 percent of the median family incomes in the zone must be lower than 90 percent of the county and state average.
Grey Jackson, economic development incentive specialist for the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said Thursday that just slightly over 60 percent of those median family incomes in the proposed EEZ are lower than the 90 percent and that the unemployment rate in the area is 13.1 percent.
Griesheimer said the county’s overall employment rate, as of March, is 7.9 percent.
The zone works by supplying a tax abatement program for current businesses that want to expand or new businesses that want to relocate within the zone. The benefits apply only to those that qualify after the EEZ is established.
On Monday, the St. Clair Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance authorizing a designation of blight within the city limits for the application of the EEZ. The city also passed an ordinance that approved abatement and qualifying entities for application.
Franklin County is expected to follow suit on the declaration of blight within the zone that doesn’t fall inside St. Clair or Parkway Village. Parkway trustees also have approved the blight designation.
“The only way we can compete (in the job market) is to offer incentives,” Griesheimer said. “Establishing this EEZ will make us competitive.”
St. Clair R-XIII School District Superintendent Mike Murphy, who also chairs the EEZ advisory board, also spoke in favor of the proposed zone.
“The St. Clair school district relies heavily on development,” he said. “We can either be a participant or an observant of growth. We’ve chosen to be a participant with the city for growth.”
Murphy’s comments came after he read a letter from the Meramec Valley R-III School District that expressed concern about the EEZ.
Both the Pacific and Boles fire protection districts also expressed concerns during the hearing as did a handful of Villa Ridge residents.
The residents’ concerns mainly centered on the designation of blight and why their area had to be included in the zone.
The proposed EEZ takes in all of St. Clair and Parkway Village as well as a stretch of land along the Interstate 44 corridor between Stanton and Gray Summit.
Jackson said Thursday that the zone area is determined through 2000 U.S. Census data and that five census blocks along the I-44 corridor were needed to qualify for the zone.
“The shape of the census tracks shapes the EEZ,” she said. “And those blocks have to be adjoining. This is the smallest area I could bring in to qualify to include the I-44 corridor. It can’t be smaller. I want you all to understand that.”
Most of the individuals who spoke were concerned about the blight designation and that it would lower their property values. Jackson said that is not true.
“You need to have a predominance of blight to get you designated,” she said. “The designation of blight only can be used for purposes of the EEZ. That’s according to state statute. It can’t be used in any other program or purpose in the state.
“It will not affect property values, whether it’s agricultural, retail or residential. It’s simply a designation based on census data. It’s a tool for economic development. It’s a tool to make you competitive for economic growth.
“In fact, it should, down the road, impact property values positively. ...
“The purpose is to generate private investment for the purpose of creating jobs.”
Jackson also said there are some misconceptions about the blight designation.
“It is illegal in this state to use economic development as a means for eminent domain,” she said. “You just can’t do it. Determining blight for an EEZ is not a first step for eminent domain. This designation is for the sole purpose of the EEZ. ...
“Your property is not being blighted. Your property would be in an area of predominance of blight.”
Jackson also said interested companies still will have to go through the regular county or city processes, including getting all necessary permits and planning and zoning approval. An EEZ designation does not affect that process.
Language associated with the proposed EEZ states that eligible facilities will receive a minimum property tax abatement of 50 percent for a minimum of 10 years. To qualify, the business must employ at least two new employees and spend a minimum of $100,000 in new investment for a new or expanding industry or $1 million for a replacement facility.
The local EEZ advisory board has recommended a maximum 80 percent abatement over 20 years.
Retail businesses do not qualify.
In all, there are 17 taxing entities and five school districts within the zone.
Originally, the proposed EEZ included Sullivan and Pacific. Pacific officials opted out while Sullivan created its own zone.
Jackson said currently there are 128 EEZs in the state, including one in St. Louis city, two in St. Louis County, one in Warren County, one in Gasconade County and one or two in Crawford County.
“You’re practically surrounded by them,” she said.
St. Clair Mayor Ron Blum concluded the hearing by re-emphasizing the area’s need for growth.
“As mayor of this great city, I see a lot of struggles,” he said. “My duty is to try to improve the quality of life for the city and the surrounding areas. We need to create these jobs to help the people of our communities. That is the city’s and county’s responsibility.”
The final step of the process is to turn everything into the state for review. The state then will determine if the EEZ is created.
There is no time line on a decision.