Council votes to move forward with Campus Link project

The Stillwater City Council heard plenty of arguments against it, however that didn't prevent a unanimous vote in favor of the Stillwater Downtown-Campus Link Project Plan.

After hearing from the public and discussing the plan further, the Council passed the plan as a part of an ordinance in first reading with a 5-0 vote. It will need to be voted on again in second reading before being implemented.

The plan involves the creation of a tax increment financing district (TIF).

A TIF is a public financing strategy that uses tax collections within a defined area to create funding for future development. Ad valorem – or property – taxes and sales taxes that exceed the current threshold would be collected and used at the City Council’s discretion to incentivize city development. In Stillwater, the Council will create an advisory committee to bring ideas and recommendations to the Council.

The defined area is Hall of Fame Avenue on the north, Lowry Street on the east, 15th Street on the south and Washington Street on the west.

The Council spent about an hour hearing strong opinions for and against the TIF. The arguments against centered on the legality of the defined area, the potential loss of tax revenue stemmed from projected development and the lack of a defined plan set forth by the committee. The law calls for the area in a TIF district to be in places where development would not have occurred anyway.

Those in favor speak to its necessity for Stillwater to take steps to invest in itself, as well as TIFs not directly taking funds from other entities.

Most who spoke against the TIF were associated with entities that rely on ad valorem tax.

Dr. Doug Major, CEO/Superintendent of Meridian Technology Center, has been one of the more vocal opposition voices. He referred to the projected tax revenue that will be collected by the City as "stolen" from other entities such as Meridian Technology Center and Payne County. Chris Reding, Chairman of the Payne County Board of Commissioners, described how the County is getting hit with reductions in state funding, and the TIF stands to put a "substantial burden" on financial resources of the County. Payne County Assessor James Cowan also spoke to the increases in activity and value.

"This area has seen tremendous increases in value," Cowan said. "I don't see how we can consider it to be a stagnant area given the increases."

Before taking a vote, the Councilors spoke to how they view the plan as a win-win.

"We don't see it as winners and losers," said Mayor Will Joyce, who was also on the project's committee. "We see it as winners for everybody. The funds we are talking about is future funds. No one is writing a check to the City of Stillwater. This idea of taking money out of someone else's budget is not an accurate way of looking at a TIF."

Joyce added that the committee sought legal counsel from multiple people regarding the legality of the TIF plan and all agreed it was within the law's limits.

Councilor John Wedlake said he would rather try something and fail than do nothing, although he believes the TIF is a low-risk-high-reward plan.

"It's a way we can improve our quality of life without sticking our heads in the sand," Wedlake said. "At the end of day what we are asking for an investment in our lives."

Twitter: @Kieran_Steckley