After nearly three hours of discussion, Lehigh County commissioners again delayed deciding the fate of the Hamilton Crossings shopping center in Lower Macungie Township.
Before them on Wednesday night was an ordinance approving the county’s participation in tax increment financing –TIF –for the $140 million development.
Developers of the upscale shopping center maintain they cannot build it unless they get TIF support, which will help cover the cost of road, storm water and electric utility improvements.
If the commissioners vote against the TIF, they will kill the deal.
The controversial TIF plan was before the commissioners for action at their May 22 meeting. But that night they unanimously agreed to wait until Wednesday, to get first-hand information about why the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission opposes the plan.
On Wednesday, they voted to delay again – but not unanimously – until their June 26 meeting. One commissioner warned they may again defer action on the TIF plan that night.
For more than an hour, 14 people – residents, planners, Lower Macungie officials and even a competitor – stood at the podium to address the commissioners about the project and its TIF plan.
For up to 20 years that TIF would divert 50 percent of real estate taxes that normally would go from the new shopping center to the county and East Penn School District. (Lower Macungie currently does not collect real estates taxes, but may do so in the future.)
That diverted money would help pay debt on multi-million-dollar infrastructure improvements around the 63-acre shopping center, which will be built on both sides of Krocks Road between Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222.
Bruce Schanzer, president and CEO of Cedar Realty Trust, which owns the nearby Trexler Mall and Trexlertown Plaza shopping centers, told commissioners that if they vote against the TIF and the Hamilton Crossings developers walk away, “Cedar Realty Trust would be happy to do this development without the TIF.”
Schanzer maintained the TIF would only impact financial returns on the project by 1 percent. “The TIF doesn’t make or break the project.”
Schanzer also claimed on the day the shopping center is completed, the developers “will have captured a profit of at least $30 million to $50 million.”
Allentown resident Joe Hilliard told commissioners: “If any of you vote for this tonight, you’re committing a gross dereliction of duty.”
“A no vote would be tragic here,” said Lower Macungie resident Mark Spangler, who said he opposes bad land deals in the township but lives near the Hamilton Crossings site and supports the project.
After 11 p.m., Atty. Blake Marles, who represents developers Tim Harrison and Jeremy Fogel, was the last person to take the podium.
Said Marles: “It is late in the evening. If there is information commissioners want that they don’t have, the developer would be quite willing to have the board defer, for the board to get those questions answered. If you would like to submit them in writing, we could respond in writing so the information could be made public.”
Defer or table?
“We’ve heard some compelling arguments on both sides tonight,” said Commissioner Percy Dougherty. “Some of the information we got tonight is entirely new.” He said the commissioners need time to analyze that information.
He said commissioners also should get information from the state Department of Transportation about Hamilton Crossings’ impact on Route 222, a major concern of the LVPC.
Dougherty made a motion to defer action of the TIF for two weeks “pending additional information.”
But he said deferring doesn’t necessarily mean the commissioners will make a decision in two weeks. “It may be much longer than that.”
Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, suggested they could table the TIF, which would delay action indefinitely until a motion would be made “to take it off the table.”
But Dougherty preferred deferring because it would give PennDOT, the developers and other entities “the heat under their feet to get them moving on this.”
After the meeting, Dougherty said: “I don’t think we’re going to settle this in two weeks. But I figured if we tabled it, nothing will get done.”