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Chamber to conduct town forum

The Green Park Board of Aldermen has directed the city's Chamber of Commerce to conduct a town-hall meeting to obtain comments from residents about the proposed redevelopment of 15 acres off Yuma Drive.

The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously last week to approve the motion made by Ward 1 Alderman Judy Betlach to conduct the meeting to obtain feedback from residents about the proposal.

Betlach asked Green Park Chamber of Commerce President Jim Smoot during his presentation of the redevelopment plan to the board if he had plans to obtain comments from residents.

"I believe if the city feels there is merit in this concept that the city should call a town-hall meeting,'' Smoot said. "The entire Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce has already volunteered to come and host the meeting if necessary."

Betlach said, "I personally see that as your responsibility to start off with that type of open hearing with the people to see if there is that kind of support."

Smoot, who owns Fantasy Coachworks, told the Call that he expects to get a public informational meeting together within 30 days.

The proposal calls for purchasing all of the businesses and residences on Yuma Drive and replacing them with a new commercial corridor facing South Lindbergh Boulevard that would include a 24-hour convenience store, a new restaurant, a new Lion's Choice restaurant and a new Fantasy Coachworks building as well as a retail building that would include multiple businesses.

At the rear of the proposed commercial corridor would be the street Yuma Place, which would be extended from the adjacent subdivision where it dead-ends out to Flori Drive.

On the other side of the new Yuma Place would be a buffer of town homes facing the commercial corridor on one side and the houses on Marbob Road in Ronnie Hills on the other side. Flori Drive would be extended to Lindbergh Boulevard where there would be a signalized intersection.

Board members and Mayor Steve Armstrong indicated that they were interested in the plan and said that they would like to see more information. At the same time, they cited a number of concerns about the proposal.

"It looks like a plan that warrants some additional looking at from the city's perspective and also I think based on some of the comments the Green Park Chamber of Commerce has gotten back," Armstrong told the Call. "Kind of like I said, we both probably need to go back and do some work."

The mayor said the plan had issues that needed to be addressed, but on the surface it appears to be a good plan.

"Unfortunately, I was not at the last planning and zoning meeting. From what I understand, they had positive comments; positive comments back from residents, also ... with some concerns and issues," Armstrong said. "I think the last board meeting ... the aldermen brought up some issues that need to be looked at and addressed. So I think it's a plan that needs to (be) further looked into. I mean ... we need to go from there.

"We need to look at how it fits with our comprehensive plan and how we want to develop as a city. There's been a lot of things proposed along there and there is a combination that works for the city, that is you know, works for the residents of the city. I think we need to do some work. I can't say it's the greatest thing. I can't say it's bad either It's kind of one of those things. Right now I think it definitely deserves to be looked at further and start collecting the comments and concerns and issues and address them," the mayor said.

Even though the proposal looks good on the surface, looks can be deceiving, the mayor told the Call.

"I've learned through being involved on P and Z (Planning and Zoning) as an alderman and now as a mayor that you don't judge a book by its cover," he said.

"You know, you've got to look at everything. Sometimes things up front look really great and then once you start looking into them, you find out they're not so great, and by the same token, there are things that look really, maybe on the surface, don't look like a good idea, but once you start studying and start thinking about them, you start looking at all the aspects, they are good. ... I try to approach things with an open mind and not prejudge them," Armstrong said.

Some of the concerns cited by Armstrong were raised Sept. 15 by Ward 1 Alderman Judy DeWitt when she responded to Smoot's presentation.

"There is a lot about your concept that I like, first of all. I do like your plan ... However, there is a lot of work on this before I would even consider talking about it and of course the financing is the biggest issue that has to be gone over with a fine tooth comb," DeWitt said.

"Rezoning and changing our comprehensive plan is a big issue. The billboard is a big issue and, of course, the Lion's Choice ingress-egress is an issue. So, and also, the retail stores, and your store is the anchor, so are you retail?'' DeWitt asked.

"Yes ma'am," Smoot responded.

"OK, so I think with the addition of the retail stores that's all the more argument that we need business licenses," Dewitt continued. "What I have a hard time with really is the overall trust of you. The relationship that you've had with the city in the past, with the residents and with your own business, it's hard for me to wipe out of my mind."

Smoot responded, "I'd like to address that for just a second. You can be sure that I will fight for what I believe in that's the one thing I can say I'd be proud of. This concept has been developed based on problems. If you look at all the commercial property down Lindbergh Boulevard, it all goes all the way back to here.

"All the neighbors that are in the other wards, this is where the line was drawn here. We had commercial businesses all along Yuma Drive. Whenever that comprehensive plan was done, they chose to down-zone these people here (On Yuma Drive ) that created a grandfather problem and then subsequent problems,'' Smoot continued. "The board has talked about that there is a problem to address. Quite frankly, all of the property owners and business owners in this area if you say you don't want anything to happen and they can have their zoning and do their business and not be bothered. They're all willing to do that today.

"It's that simple. But if there's constant problems and the city wants something different and something to be changed, then we have to address the residential area. We have to address the public improvements and we have to address how the land can be purchased and utilized and create sales tax, capital-improvement tax and job opportunities and we have to control the traffic,'' Smoot said.

"Is this too expensive to do correctly today? I would tell you that it would be more expensive tomorrow and a lot more expensive years from now,'' he said. "Whatever we do today will seem very reasonable five years from now and 10 years from now it will seem cheap. So how long do you want this condition to exist on Yuma Drive and have these dilapidated, delinquent obsolete buildings sitting in your community, producing nothing?''

Betlach also raised concerns about Smoot's interest in the project.

" ... I also need to echo what Judy (Dewitt) said in that you know I'm really concerned with your history Jim, and we can talk about the No. 1 hit list on the Better Business Bureau. We can talk about toxic chemicals being sprayed in Green Park. We can talk about ladies in swimsuits and I think this is a good idea, but my suggestion is ... It would help if you had a better front man," Betlach said.

"Well, Judy, I hope I'm not remembered throughout my life for a bikini car wash," Smoot said. "Judy, I appreciate those comments. Let me tell you something ... where this toxic chemical thing came from I don't know. We had that lot sprayed for weeds by a weed company that was registered with the city. We do make mistakes and hopefully we do learn from them.''

Armstrong told the Call that he would not take into considerations Smoot's history with the city.

"I can't say what Jim's motivations are or aren't. I mean, obviously, am I aware that he owns the piece of property behind him. Yeah, I am aware of it," Armstrong said. "I mean, I don't know that anybody's not aware of those issues, but I think the project's going to stand on its own merit.

"I think any project within the city ought to be approved or disapproved based on the merit of the project vs. or based on the kind of business or the merit of the project. I look at it as a project. I think that's how things should be looked at. I can't speak for what Jim's motivations are or aren't. I don't think there is any secret that he has a financial interest in this," the mayor said.

Smoot presented two financing mechanisms that would be available to the city to pay for the public improvements, including new streets, a stoplight and sewers.

One of the mechanisms mentioned was a Transportation Development District, which would allow the city to add up to a half percent additional sales tax on sales in the proposed redevelopment area. That additional sales tax would be used to retire bonds the city would have to borrow to fund the public improvements.

The other financing mechanism mentioned was a Neighborhood Improvement District, which would place a special assessment tax on properties in the area and would fund the public improvements.

Armstrong told the Call more research is needed on the financing of the proposed redevelopment.

"There are a lot of things we have to figure out with the financing of stuff," he said. "We as a city need to get smarter about what those are ... Big picture-wise, I kind of know what they are. Someone has told me what they are, but I don't understand them enough. I don't know what those mean and how they work."

Armstrong told the Call he would not consider using tax-increment financing for this development.

"Based on feedback from the residents on the last one. I'd have to say no. The residents basically spoke the last time and actually I think TIFs are out now." he said.

Armstrong was appointed to the city's TIF Commission in 1997 and subsequently served as chairman of that panel, which recommended granting up to $4.5 million in TIF assistance to Home Depot, the world's largest home-improvement retailer.

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