SWAG project won't happen in Evansville

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Gina Duwe
Monday, July 21, 2014

EVANSVILLE--SWAG will begin looking at other communities to build its agricultural education and innovation complex after Evansville city officials said Monday they could not provide more than $5.5 million in requested city tax incremental financing.

“At this point, it would take more than a miracle,” City Council President Jim Brooks said. “It's not a failure on one part or another. We just could not put together a financial deal that made sense for both parties, and that's stated without malice. We wish them well.”

Brooks detailed the financial situation at the city's economic development committee meeting Monday night. Brooks, Mayor Sandy Decker and other city officials met with SWAG officials Monday to discuss requests to exceed the city's borrowing limit, Brooks said.

SWAG President Mike Larson said in a written statement Monday night SWAG is disappointed the project would not become a reality in Evansville.

“Both parties mutually realized that the city's financial position would not allow them to financially support SWAG's … development at a level SWAG needed,” he wrote. “Our group was dependent upon that support to make this complex become a reality at the Evansville site.”

He said SWAG appreciated the city's willingness to discuss options, and the group is still committed to making the project a reality.

“We will engage with other communities to find the best option for our Agricultural Education & Innovation Complex,” Larson wrote. “We are committed to engaging the public in agriculture and agricultural education. Our mission of exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to agriculture remains the same.”

He thanked the people and businesses of Evansville for supporting the project the last four years.

The not-for-profit Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group bought 217 acres in 2012 at Highway 14 and County M for its project, which also included a Blackhawk Technical College training center.

SWAG recently started its fundraising campaign with a goal of $15 million for the first phase of its project.

 “It came down to the city being asked to be the sole provider of the first $5.5 million, and we declined,” Brooks said.

The city is writing a letter stating support for SWAG but explaining both sides mutually agreed the project wouldn't happen in Evansville, Brooks said. The city council likely will ratify the letter in a special meeting Thursday.

Brooks and Decker said SWAG requested:

--More than $5.5 million through TIF by asking the city to exceed its voluntary cap of borrowing no more than 50 percent of its legal limit.

The state limits the city's borrowing to 5 percent of equalized value, which in Evansville is about $15 million, Decker said. Following advice from financial advisers, the city's policy is to not exceed 2.5 percent.

Exceeding the city's 2.5 percent cap would make it impossible to do street repairs, water system upgrades and other needed projects, Decker said.

“If we did SWAG, we wouldn't be able to do these,” she said. 

--To annex the 83 acres in the town of Union. The remaining SWAG land is in the city.

--An overlay to expand TIF District No. 6, which includes part of SWAG's property.

SWAG gave the city a financial overview last week that the city's financial advisers at Ehlers briefly reviewed, Brooks said.

“The discussion from Dave Wagner (of Ehlers) was that $70,000 an acre for infrastructure development along Highway 14 was not sustainable increment,” Brooks said. “That's as close as it (the review) came to making a recommendation.”

The city supported the project from the start, including paying $20,000 for a traffic study and deferring more than $800,000 in assessments on infrastructure from a previous project that will benefit the property, Decker said.

The city made some conditions clear from the start of SWAG's proposal, including:

--Money provided through TIF would be “pay as you go,” meaning the city would reimburse the developer's expenses rather than the city borrowing the money at the start and taking the risk.

--TIF money would be given for infrastructure improvements such as streets, storm sewer, sidewalks, etc.

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