July 12, 2017 10:36:10 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
An expected joint meeting of the Starkville Board of Aldermen, Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors and bond attorneys could decide the fate of a proposed Golden Triangle Development LINK-backed industrial park as leaders are expected to discuss how to proceed with the litigated project's financing.
Development of the almost 400-acre park is in limbo after property owners adjacent to the north Starkville site appealed an Oktibbeha County Circuit Court-approved city rezoning of the property to the Miss. Supreme Court.
That litigation, county leaders acknowledged, could drag on for years, and the same group also filed a bill of exceptions against Starkville's recently approved comprehensive plan.
In the meantime, both boards must decide whether to continue with a process to fund infrastructure improvements through $14 million in combined bonds.
Officials have speculated about the need for a joint city-county meeting in the past weeks, and a public call for such a meeting was made Monday by supervisors.
The yet-to-be-scheduled meeting is expected to take place next week at the earliest and is also expected to be publicly noticed since a quorum of aldermen and supervisors are likely to meet.
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said the gathering won't occur until after Tuesday's aldermen meeting, and LINK Chief Executive Officer Joe Max Higgins said he and his staff have prior commitments for most of next week.
The need to figure out financial issues with the project was recently pushed to the forefront after Higgins approached Starkville aldermen in executive session last month and contacted supervisors individually.
Supervisors said Higgins gave them three options: issue the bonds and begin with infrastructure improvements knowing there's a chance the legal process could go against the city's and LINK's favor; issue the bonds and sit on the money until the case is decided; or walk away entirely from the project.
Higgins confirmed meeting with city and county officials but would not comment on the specifics of his recommendations. Those, he said, will be debuted publicly at Tuesday's board of aldermen meeting, with a follow-up presentation expected to come before supervisors in August if needed.
"We're going to give them examples of risk and reward, and simply call balls and strikes on this one since there are multiple paths forward. This is not a legal question to me -- it's a political one, and politicians have to answer those questions," he said. "Our attorneys tell us there are no reasons (the city and county) can't proceed (despite ongoing litigation), but there's always a political reason.
"At the end of the day, everyone gets caught up in 'The LINK this, and the LINK that,'" he added. "I told Lynn (Spruill) yesterday that this is your industrial park; I told (District 2 Supervisor) Orlando (Trainer) that this is your industrial park; it's (Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority President) Jack Wallace's park, too. We work for you."
While the county previously backed its $7 million pledge and could restart the issuance's process, District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller said she's concerned with moving forward with a bond package for a project that is still tied up in litigation.
One issue, she said Monday, is with how the county advertised the bond issuance for improvements specifically for an industrial park. She asked how Oktibbeha County could proceed with funding those improvements if the court's decision goes against the city's rezoning and eventually nixes the development.
Both Miller and board attorney Jackson Brown said Butler Snow attorney Sam Keyes, who serves as the county's bond counsel, is reviewing the issue but has indicated a preference of delaying the bond until legal matters are settled.
Keyes is likely to be unavailable for the joint meeting, Brown said, as he is dealing with numerous personal issues.
"We know we all support industrial development -- that's not a question. The question here is the legal authority based on what was advertised," Miller said. "We would not be building infrastructure ... if we weren't going to be building an industrial park."
Higgins, however, said he believes infrastructure improvements can move forward based on how they were advertised.
"I've read them, and I don't see any red flags. I don't think we're doing anything we haven't told the public -- buy land, install water, sewer and roads," he said.
When asked if the LINK would ask Starkville to issue the complete $14 million for improvements if the county does not renew its prior commitment, Higgins said such an attempt would be "a heavy lift" for a single governmental entity.
"That's why we're supportive of this joint meeting," he said. "We brought them three recommendations for a new industrial park, and they chose this site. This is something the city and county have to figure out."
If the project is eventually scrapped, District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard said "that's probably going to be it" in terms of developing a large-scale industrial park in Oktibbeha County.
"I can't make up my mind yet on which way to go. I don't see another spot of land anywhere," he said. "As hard as we've pushed to even get to this point, if this one sinks, that could possibly be the end of economic development in Oktibbeha County."
Both boards have time to figure out how to proceed at this point since litigation isn't forecast to conclude this year; environmental studies and cultural resource mitigation efforts are at least eight months to a year out; and engineers are expected to conclude designing improvements until the fall.
Higgins said construction on those improvements, if funded and authorized, won't begin until spring, and the LINK is not expected to begin marketing the park until the fall of 2018.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch