The Daphne City Council met with the city’s Industrial Development Board in a joint work session Monday to discuss the future of the Daphne Innovation and Science Complex (DISC) following the council’s 4-3 decision in September to deny a prezoning and annexation request related to the project.
At issue was a $441,000 allocation from Gov. Robert Bentley’s office recently given to the IDB. Over the summer, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency (EMA) gave the city the green light to use its allocation of $426,000 in early BP restoration grant money for the bulk of the DISC project’s initial 30-acre land purchase at the southwest corner of State Highway 181 and Champions Way.
The AMEA also gave the city permission to use $15,000 in BP funding to pay for a Troy University economic study showing the city’s losses related to the oil spill. The city used the study to prove its financial losses from the spill and secure approval to use BP funds for DISC to promote economic development.
Mayor Dane Haygood said while the city already had the approved $426,000 in BP funds stored in a city bank account, the state sent the IDB an additional $441,000 in funds erroneously — $426,000 for DISC and $15,000 for the study. Haygood said the city will return it.
According to Haygood, the $426,000 the state gave the city permission to use the money for DISC cannot be repurposed for recreation or sewer projects.
City Council President Pat Rudicell said the council will decide at its regular meeting Monday night whether to spend the money on the initial 30-acre purchase or authorize the city to ask the state to allow it to use the money for something other than DISC. City attorney Jay Ross advised the city to decide what to do with the money before a state-mandated March 2016 deadline.
The DISC project has been one of the more contentious issues in the city in the last year. One councilman, Joe Davis III, resigned in protest after the council’s September rejection. Davis’ replacement in District 7, the recently appointed Angie Phillips, said the city needs to recognize the efforts made by the IDB, an all-volunteer autonomous city board.
“I believe the IDB members have the best interests of the city at heart,” Phillips said. “I do think we should explore the issue to see if DISC is viable at the proposed location or another.”
According to IDB chairperson Toni Fassbender, the board has amassed approximately $350,000 in its bank account. The IDB receives 13 percent of the city’s lodging tax revenue, which amounts to approximately $14,000 per month.
Because it is an autonomous city board, Fassbender said the IDB can spend its funds as its members choose within 25 miles of the city’s corporate border, so the IDB could pursue the DISC land purchase on its own without the city’s BP grant allocation. The IDB promised DISC would bring “Class A” office space and white collar jobs to Daphne.
“We do this because we care about the city,” Fassbender said. “Maybe we got too grandiose with the initial plans for the project and it scared people. But we just want good, high-paying jobs for the city.”
Councilman Randy Fry asked if the IDB could ask the city to reconsider its pre-zoning and annexation application within the next year because the council already rejected it. City attorney Kevin Boucher said because the vote was for “pre-zoning” and not an actual zoning request, the applicant can bring it before the city at any time.
Fry said he is still concerned about the lack of communication from the IDB and the mayor’s office in the initial DISC push. He also said he still has concerns with the project’s proposed Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning designation, which he believes is too lenient for such a large project. Fry also opposes using city funds for the project.
While the Renaissance Center on U.S. Route 90 and Jubilee Square have been successful in Daphne, Fry cited the Spanish Fort Town Center and the South Alabama Mega Site as examples of taxpayer funded development projects which cost a lot of money but did not bring in the amount of jobs as predicted.
Fry said he does not support the use of taxpayer funded real estate endeavors and there are still “hurdles” to be cleared before he can support the DISC project in any fashion. He suggested the IDB may use its current funds to pursue the project by finding alternative funding measures like a mortgage, bonds or private donations.
“Daphne’s identity is a family, recreational, retiree community and not a center for business,” he said. “People don’t move here for jobs. I’d like to meet someone who moved here for a job because I’ve never met them. They move here because we have a good way of life. As elected officials our job is to protect and enhance that way of life.”
Councilman Robin LeJeune said he is open to compromise on the location or size of the project. He also said the IDB had received a letter of intent from a developer who has committed to constructing the first building on the property if and when it is purchased.
“I’m for any kind of compromise because I think this is a good project,” he said. “Anything we can do to salvage some aspects of DISC and all the hard work from the IDB would be good for the city.”
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