The Norman City Council will vote this week on a group of amendments to a controversial city development plan after the vote was postponed.
The University North Park tax increment finance (UNP TIF) district is located between U.S. Highway 77 to the west of Interstate 35, and just south of Robinson Street and north of Tecumseh Road, according to a public notice from the city of Norman. A project plan was adopted in 2006 and authorized several development projects under the TIF, which would take the difference between a frozen sales tax rate for the district and any future increases toward further development for the district.
Cynthia Rogers, who is an OU economics professor, a member of the Norman Forward citizen financial oversight board and a member of Oklahoma's Incentive Evaluation Commission, said citizens were able to vote on how to use their sales tax dollars in the Norman Forward package, which is not the case with the UNP TIF.
“The public put in our money up front (in) the public infrastructures ... to try to get things going,” Rogers said. “What it did was it sped up development — it just happened a little quicker than it would have otherwise. The developer doesn't want to do their part and (doesn’t) want to pay the penalty. Neither wants to build the lifestyle center and nor do they want to pay the penalty.”
After holding two public hearings on the latest amendments to the UNP TIF project plan on Oct. 22 and Nov. 5, the city council was scheduled to vote Nov. 5. Councilmember Stephen Holman of Ward 7 urged the council to postpone the vote to Tuesday, Nov. 26, so they could better understand what their constituents wanted from them going forward with the UNP TIF — especially after many concerned citizens had vocalized their opinions on the controversial project.
Political science senior Corey Abernathy, who has attended many of the city council meetings regarding TIF, said the move to postpone the vote was a step in the right direction.
“I think everyone is in agreement that the TIF should end — we should really make steps towards that. But (the amendments don’t) end the TIF, and it kind of gives an out to a lot of businesses that really haven't been providing the services that they promised they would at the annexation of the TIF,” Abernathy said.
Many concerned groups in Norman are hoping to see a resolution to the drawn-out process. Alva Brockus, the board chair of the Sooner Swim Club, said she is looking forward to seeing action on the indoor aquatic center that was promised as part of the Norman Forward package in 2015.
In 2015, the city of Norman voted in favor of the Norman Forward package, which included an indoor aquatic facility, multi-sport complex, senior center and the latest Norman Public Library, which opened in early November. The indoor aquatic facility, multi-sport complex and senior center have been connected to the UNP TIF.
“Once they passed Norman Forward, we presumed the city would move forward with the project. They did rebuild (Westwood Family Aquatic Center) and an outdoor pool there ... and we are still left without the indoor facility,” said Nancy Yoch, one of the founders of the Pisces Project, an organization that was founded in 2006 to help raise awareness for the need of a new indoor aquatic center.
According to Brockus, the UNP location is the best place for the construction of the aquatic center because it is “shovel ready” and has a close proximity to the highway, Embassy Suites and several shopping centers. Despite this, there hasn’t been much action on the construction of the aquatic center.
“I think, first and foremost, we're hoping to hear some sort of resolution — one way or another,” Brockus said. “Because the city council has rolled this decision repeatedly for the last several years, we've been kind of dragged along in one form or fashion.”
The Norman swim community is not the only group of people concerned about the Tuesday council decision. Members of the Norman Seniors Association are concerned the vote will negatively affect funding for the Norman Wellness Center, and Brockus echoed these same concerns about funding for Norman Forward projects.
“Obviously, we have concerns about available funding for the aquatic center,” Brockus said. “And so we're hoping to see some money come out of this decision for the aquatic center and, by extension, the multi-sport facility.”
Among those who are against the proposed UNP TIF amendments are a group of economists from the University of Oklahoma.
Rogers said the proposed amendments would overuse incentives, allowing for developers to have their costs of development covered for building in the designated area, according to a letter the economists delivered to the council. The group includes economics professors Greg Burge, who also sits on the UNP TIF oversight board; Firat Demir; Alexander Holmes, who sits on the Norman Economic Development advisory board; and James Hartigan, who said the proposed amendments work against the project’s intent.
“You haven't seen anybody making an economic argument that these changes (to the UNP TIF) don’t better (the goal)," Rogers said. "They actually work against the goal of stimulating investment, which just lets them out if they will build something to avoid the penalty."
Members of the Norman community hope to see future action on the UNP TIF so they will finally see the completion of the Norman Forward projects.
“I don't feel like I've accomplished anything here,” said Julie Knudsen, president of the Norman Seniors Association. “I am terrified that if we stop, it'll never start again. That's one of my greatest fears is if we put the brakes on this.”