Lehigh County commissioners voted 6-3 against a tax increment financing plan for the proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center in Lower Macungie Township.

That Wednesday night vote may kill the $140-million project -- which would include a Costco, Whole Foods and Target -- because the developers repeatedly have stated they cannot build it without a TIF to help pay for public road, storm water and utility improvements at the 63-acre site.

The financing plan needed the support of the county, township and East Penn School District to succeed, according to TIF proponents. It already has the support of the township and school district.

A disappointed Hamilton Crossings developer Jeremy Fogel called the commissioners’ vote “a huge setback. We’ve got to rethink our whole strategy.”

Asked if the vote will kill the project, Fogel said: “We need those funds. That’s a fact.”

Tim Harrison, Fogel’s partner in the project, declined to comment after the vote.
But before commissioners voted, Harrison told them: “The project needs this TIF. It is what separates a financeable, doable project from what is absolutely not financeable and not doable.”

In late May, Harrison told the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission: “Without the TIF, there is no project. Without the county, there is no TIF.”

“The proposed shopping center, as presented, is definitely dead,” declared Commissioner Percy Dougherty, one of the three who voted for the TIF plan.

Dougherty said Hamilton Crossings was intended to be an upscale “lifestyle center” similar to the Promenade Shops in Upper Saucon Township.

He suggested the project might come back “in a different incarnation. It’s my worry that the developer will try to cut corners and come back with something that is not as good. I’m afraid that if they’re going to do this, they’re going to have to find commensurate cuts in the project.”

Dougherty, a Republican, is the only Lower Macungie resident on the nine-member board and one of two commissioners who served on a Hamilton Crossings TIF committee.

Surprise votes

The commissioners’ vote was unusual because it did not split along party lines (there are seven Republicans and two Democrats) or the frequent 5-4 split with the conservative “reform” commissioners in the majority.

The first surprise was that Republican Thomas Creighton supported the TIF.
“I’m convinced the development will not happen unless the TIF is approved,” said Creighton.

Also surprising was that Democrat Daniel McCarthy and moderate Republican Brad Osborne voted against the TIF.

McCarthy did not comment on his position before the vote.

Osborne did comment, saying his decision would be made on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one, but he did not reveal how he would be voting.

Osborne declined to explain his negative vote after the meeting.

But McCarthy did explain why he voted no: “I came to the conclusion this project is likely to happen even without Lehigh County participating in the TIF. They’ll do the project without the TIF.

“I know the developer says no, but I’ve seen these projects resurrect themselves.”

McCarthy said Hamilton Crossings is planned in an excellent location and has three excellent retail corporations coming in.

A township issue?

Before the vote, Creighton said county government is overextending its authority by essentially voting on a land development issue, saying that is for Lower Macungie’s elected officials to decide.

“They know what’s best for their township. Both the township and the school district are in support of the TIF. I will be voting in support of the TIF also. It’s a win-win-win for the school district, township and county.”

Creighton indicated he does not like when the state and federal government try to impose mandates on the county, “so why should we feel any different when the county is trying to mandate things on Lower Macungie Township? Small government is what makes the best government.”