$800K tax incentive approved
By REBECCA MCKINSEY
The plan was in place — it just needed a “yes” vote.
With a narrow margin Tuesday, the Jefferson city council approved filtering $800,000 in tax increment financing for a Cobblestone hotel that will abut the casino debuting in Jefferson next year.
Cobblestone Hotels had been planning to build a hotel in Jefferson for more than a year when a $40 million casino and entertainment complex was approved for the city.
Wild Rose Entertainment soon realized that it made sense to work with the hotel already in progress. With the two entities working together, both were able to improve their plans.
The casino, relieved of the responsibility of building a hotel, was able to plan for a large conference center. And the hotel, no longer tasked with building a conference center, was able to double the rooms it would have — from 36 to 71 — as well as look into adding an indoor pool.
Cobblestone recently approached the city to ask for an $800,000 TIF reimbursement, an incentive for the hotel that had been discussed before the casino plans were finalized.
However, opinions among the council were mixed — if Wild Rose was going to build a hotel either way, why use the $800,000 for Cobblestone’s project?
Several arguments validated the money, Jeremy Griesbach of Cobblestone Hotels and Tom Timmons of Wild Rose Entertainment told council Aug. 26. Although Wild Rose could build a hotel on its own or with another partner, it likely would be smaller and would not have a pool. And if Cobblestone were out of the picture, local investors were more likely to rescind their involvement in the hotel.
The council ultimately voted the TIF through, with Lisa Jaskey, Larry Teeples and Shannon Black voting for the incentive, and Gary Von Ahsen and Harry Ahrenholtz voting against it.
Von Ahsen said he supports the hotel but doesn’t want to use the TIF to pay for it when Wild Rose is going to build one either way.
“I have a fiscal responsibility to the people of Jefferson,” he said. “Whether we approve this or don’t, the hotel’s going to get built. I’ve had enough input from people that approached me that were strongly against the $800,000 TIF that I cannot justify in my mind using this amount of money and taking it away from the county and from the people in Jefferson … if we can sit here and do nothing and the same thing happens.”
Ahrenholtz agreed with Von Ahsen, although he noted the possibility of local investors withdrawing from the project if Cobblestone didn’t build the hotel.
“Based on everything I know, all the constituents I’ve heard from and the studies I’ve done, I think the $800,000 TIF dollars is excessive for what this project is,” he said.
Jaskey referenced an email from a resident that she said summed up how she feels about the project.
“This hotel will have all kinds of public benefit, including enlarging the local tax base, and bringing in more tourists and the money they will spend all over the town and county,” she said. “This will be a place to stay over for business travelers, family visitors and casino customers.”
All eyes in Iowa have been on Jefferson during the campaign for the casino, she added.
“This will show the rest of the state that Jefferson and Greene County, already admired as a can-do community, means real business,” she said. “We’re the kind of place that will partner with companies and help them grow.”
Teeples argued that the agreement between Wild Rose and Cobblestone will allow for a better hotel, with more rooms and an indoor pool.
“It seems that with … the positive casino vote, things economically started moving in Greene County,” he said. “I sure would hate to think we’d give a no vote and stop the growth we’re having. That could send a message to future businesses coming in.”
Black spoke last, tipping the votes in the “yes” column. She noted that denying the TIF likely would set back Wild Rose’s project by necessitating new hotel plans.
“If they have to go back to the drawing board and do a hotel, are we putting the brakes or a hold on this project?” she asked. “Are we going to look like business partners? … I don’t think we can say, ‘They’re a casino; they have deep pockets.’ We’re in this partnership. I think we should continue to move forward.”
Jefferson Mayor Craig Berry thanked the council for voting yes.
“I’m not swaying one way or the other, but I talked to Wild Rose, and (if Wild Rose built the hotel), it would be a quite a bit smaller hotel,” he said. “It would still have 71 rooms, but it would be smaller, with fewer amenities.”
Von Ahsen emphasized that his “no” vote was not swayed by his previous lack of support for the casino, and he and Ahrenholtz both agreed they would support the project moving forward.
“The council has spoken, and (the TIF) is approved,” Ahrenholtz said. “I based my vote on the facts and information I had available and the constituents who came to me. But I’ll put my full force into making this happen now.”