Belmont Economic Development

Thursday night’s special meeting of the City Council saw the initial requests for economic development incentives from the City of Belmont for the Chronicle Mill and River West Business Park projects. There was no vote taken on these, but they will likely come up for a vote at the regular January 6th meeting. Below is a summary of each request:

Chronicle Mill

The developers of Chronicle Mill are seeking what is effectively a refund of 70% of their property taxes over five years once the redevelopment of the mill is complete. The way this would work is that the property owner would pay the full tax each year – but then at the end of the year Belmont would refund 70% of the taxes paid back to the property owner as the economic development incentive. According to the developer’s presentation the other night, the total cost/refund amount would be approximately $388,000 over the course of five years.

Beyond the question of whether the city should be in the business of subsidizing apartment buildings in the first place, my other concern is that it’s not clear to me what benefit the city is supposed to obtain by making this grant. There are no new enhancements being proposed beyond what is already a part of the project plan that the city council just approved a few weeks ago. There was a lot of talk about the economic benefits of having so many people close to downtown – which while true, would also be true of any 5-story apartment building built near downtown. The job growth from this project is also pretty small. According to the developer’s presentation, up to 22 “long-term” jobs will be created by whatever businesses choose to lease space from the ground-level units, while the developer itself will hire about 5 people to run and manage the apartment complex. I see very little tangible public benefit here, which also raises potential legal issues for such a deal.

Another interesting facet of the conversation was this idea that the grants were somehow “free” since what Belmont would effectively be doing is refunding a portion (70%) of the taxes that had already been paid. But that misses an important point. The property owner is legally obligated to pay those property taxes. On the other hand, the city is under no obligation to pay these grants (unless it chooses to enter into this agreement). It’s an expenditure like anything else, except instead of cutting a check to somebody for new playground equipment or new sidewalks, we’d be cutting a check to a developer for…? It’s important to remember that a choice to spend money on these grants is also a choice not to spend money on something else.

River West Business Park

The River West economic development incentives are aimed at obtaining financial support from Belmont for some of the TIA (Traffic Impact Analysis) improvements that were incorporated as conditions of this plan’s conditional rezoning. Per the developer, the total cost of all the improvements (which includes the areas around Woodlawn Street, Acme Road, and Cason Street) is approximately $1.9MM. The total ask from Belmont is undetermined at this point, but their primary interest seemed to be around the improvements that were required at the intersection of Acme Road and Woodlawn Street (where it is currently fairly dangerous to make a turn from Acme onto Woodlawn due to a sharp curve and significant hill right at that intersection).

Personally, I think it would have made a lot of sense to have this conversation about who pays for what within the larger context of the conditional rezoning process that just wrapped up a few weeks ago. Being able to negotiate all of this at the same time makes sense from a process stand point and would also likely save everyone some time.

Regarding this project in particular, I think a lot of it will come down to how much the developer is expecting the city to contribute and whether it makes sense to accelerate the improvements at this intersection ahead of other identified needs on Belmont’s capital improvement plan (since money spent on this is money that can’t be spent on other projects). So, this one is worth keeping an eye on.