Will the Hamilton Crossings shopping center project soon collapse like a house of cards?
It could happen:
If the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission makes a recommendation against the $140-million project Thursday night.
And if Lehigh County's commissioners use that LVPC recommendation to vote against a tax increment financing plan for the project in June.
And if the developers really do walk away from the project if they don't get TIF support, as they repeatedly have maintained they will do.
But it’s still too soon to say goodbye Costco and the rest of Hamilton Crossings.
The LVPC board could go against the recommendation of its own staff by embracing the project. And the county commissioners could decide to support the Hamilton Crossings TIF no matter what LVPC recommends.
“This is becoming like a real high stakes game of poker,” said Atty. John Lushis, solicitor to the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority, which created and would administer the TIF.
Lushis believes Hamilton Crossing’s developers will have no choice but to walk away if they don’t get the TIF, because they repeatedly have said they would do just that. “If you are telling people publicly that you need something in order to do a project or you’re not going to do it, and then you do it anyway, what kind of message does that send about credibility?”
Despite presentations by Hamilton Crossings’ developers, LVPC's staff is not backing off on its objections to the 63-acre project, which is planned on both sides of Krocks Road between Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222 in Lower Macungie Township.
Based on those objections, for the second time LVPC's comprehensive planning committee is making a recommendation against the project to LVPC's full board. The board is expected to vote on that recommendation when it meets at 7 p.m. Thursday.
On May 22, county commissioners unanimously agreed to defer voting on the TIF plan until their June 12 meeting. They want to know LVPC's position on Hamilton Crossings before they vote.
“If the county commissioners don’t approve the project, it’s over,” said Lushis. “The school board has said it won’t do this project alone.”
On May 13, East Penn School Board became the first of the three local taxing bodies to embrace the TIF plan, with a 6-2 vote.
Lower Macungie commissioners, who are expected to approve the plan, won’t vote until after the county commissioners vote on June 12.
The TIF plan will collapse unless it is approved all three local government entities.
If the three agree, for up to 20 years they will give up 50 percent of increased property tax revenue coming from the shopping center – which will include a Costco and a Target.
Lower Macungie won’t immediately give up any tax revenue because it currently does not collect property tax from its residents and businesses, although that could change in future years.
Money given up by the municipalities will be used to pay debt on infrastructure improvements intended to benefit the public around the shopping center. That includes $11 million in road improvements, $4 million in storm water improvements and $1 million in utility upgrades. The three governing bodies’ TIF contributions to help cover those costs will total no more than $7 million.
LVPC’s staff position
“We can’t kill the project, we only make recommendations based on our comprehensive plan,” said Michael Kaiser, LVPC’s long-time executive director.
Kaiser explained LVPC’s staff has problems with the TIF plan and with an access lane the developers plan to build on the eastbound side of Route 222, to help people coming and going at Hamilton Crossings.
“They are using TIF to finance a lot of this stuff,” said Kaiser. “We’re not in favor of that.”
Both Kaiser and Joseph Gurinko, LVPC’s chief transportation planner, said it should be the financial responsibility of the developers, not the public, to pay for traffic and other infrastructure improvements to reduce impacts created by Hamilton Crossings.
“Our position is the developer ought to be paying for its impacts,” said Kaiser. “But that’s not our official position until the planning commission votes.”
Gurinko said the developers are requesting $6.4 million from the state Department of Transportation to build that access road, plus they want TIF money to widen and improve Krocks Road, with traffic signals at the shopping center’s entrances.