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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

JEFF'S TAKE: Place Zoo Tax Proposal on Pause

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, January 20, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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JeffRea

The Potawatomi Zoo is an important local attraction. For generations, families from our area have visited Indiana’s oldest zoo to see the more than 400 animals that call it home. Last year, more than 220,000 people came to visit.

Earlier this month, the zoo announced it was seeking approval from the Indiana General Assembly to implement a countywide food and beverage tax, to be collected from transactions at bars and restaurants or from a caterer, anywhere in St. Joseph County.

The zoo indicates the tax is necessary to support its 20-year, $37 million master plan. It believes the new tax could generate about $1 million annually.

If the General Assembly approves, it will be up to the local city councils in South Bend and Mishawaka, as well as the County Council. Two of the three bodies would have to approve for the tax to be implemented.

Currently, some 27 communities in Indiana have a food and beverage tax as a tool to help enhance the quality of place within the community. We don’t believe the tool is a bad one, if used the right way. We believe the proposal by the zoo is not the right way to go, and the pause button should be hit on its proposal. We’ll ask the General Assembly and our local councils to oppose the proposal.

We are blessed with many wonderful attractions here in our area. Think about places like Four Winds Field, the Morris Performing Arts Center, the Studebaker Museum, the History Museum, parks systems, and many other fine places that enhance the local quality of life. All face challenges like the zoo: How do they fund the ongoing maintenance and operations, deal with aging facilities, and fund necessary improvements that will help keep them competitive.

Imagine each of them, and others, lining up to make a similar request if the zoo is successful. The General Assembly and our local councils are then put in the difficult position of deciding if and when a tax is warranted for one attraction or another. All of this in a county that has historically been one of the most taxed in the state.

We believe a different approach is necessary to help meet the needs of St. Joseph County. Given the broad community needs, the business community believes a more collaborative approach is necessary. Like we suggested to the zoo in 2015, we believe any such consideration of a new tax needs to include an inclusive process involving many attractions, each of the communities in our county, and representatives of the food and beverage industry.

That process must first identify parameters by which those funds generated should be spent. It should also include guidelines ranging from who should be eligible to apply for funds to who ultimately would review applications for funds and how funds might be disbursed.

Other communities have a capital improvement board that ultimately meets to review applications. This creates a little competition among projects, but in the end, the best project gets selected. A similar model could work here.

Perhaps locally a body like the Hotel-Motel Tax Board could perform a similar function. It currently is made up of representatives from each of the communities as well as the industry.

Once an inclusive and collaborative plan has been prepared, then we take some time to help educate the public, the General Assembly, and local elected officials on the proposal, what it entails, and how it might benefit the community. The current proposal includes no such plan, and should be put on hold.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Look Back at 2015 in St. Joseph County

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber President and CEO on Thursday, January 7, 2016 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Major development and redevelopment in our downtown areas. A growing logistics hub on South Bend’s northwest side. A new gateway into Mishawaka’s north side and an expansion of the busy Grape Road/N. Main Street commercial area. A project 30 years in the making in New Carlisle. Unprecedented growth and construction on Notre Dame’s campus. The rebirth of the former Studebaker area. Unprecedented regional collaboration. What a year 2015 was!

Overall, construction activity is up more than 66%. Through November, some 456 commercial building permits have been issued in St. Joseph County with estimated commercial construction costs of over $480 million. Our County is seeing growth in all sectors.

The construction numbers aren’t the only telling facts. The number of people employed in our area is now above pre-recession employment levels at close to 125,000 employed; the unemployment rate are down close to 4%, its lowest in years; per capita personal income is up for the fifth time in the past six years; and for the first time in decades estimates have our population growing. 

The history books could look back at 2015 as a major watershed moment for economic development in our region. The Michiana Partnership has guided a well-coordinated regional economic development effort that has people across Indiana and around the Country thinking different about our area. That effort has paid off with the announcement of the State of Indiana infusing some $42 million into our regional cities effort that will catalyze some $700 million in new investment that will help grow population across our area.

Downtowns are often one of the most telling signs of the health of a community. Both South Bend and Mishawaka scored well on their check-up. In South Bend, construction is underway at the former Hoffman and LaSalle Hotel buildings, the JMS Building, the Chase Tower, and on Hill/Colfax. Downtown Mishawaka, the River Rock Project residential/commercial project and the completion of the Central Park Overhaul continue the downtown renaissance.

Our location right in the middle of the crossroads of America mean a growing logistics hub on South Bend’s northwest side. New construction in 2015 by Fed Ex, Hubbel-Raco, Chase Plastics and a new 200,000 spec building have kept contractors busy. Recently Pepsi announced plans to join the area and 2016. 

On the manufacturing side, a couple of highlights. Mercedes-Benz and AM General launched production of the R-Class at the Mishawaka Plant. General Sheet Metal broke ground on their new 22.7 million plant in the Blackthorn area. MTI announced plans for a South Bend expansion.

The opening of Beacon Parkway means a new gateway into Mishawaka’s north side. Beacon Health and Bayer have announced plans for major construction that is now underway. Also on that north side, Great Lakes Capital broke ground on a new $100 million mixed use project. The project includes multi-family residential, restaurants, offices and medical in the future.

On campus, construction is well underway on the $400 million Campus Crossroads Project that is changing the look of Notre Dame Stadium. The University also has been busy with the construction of McCourtney Hall, Jenkins and Nanovic Halls, the renovation of the Hesburgh Library, the construction of undergraduate residence halls, and the construction of the new boathouse.

The University also teamed up with partners in the aerospace industry for the construction of the new Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory at Ignition Park. Construction is nearing completion and will be ready for occupancy in 2016.

On the west side of the County, construction finally began on the St. Joseph Energy Center, a new $500 million natural gas power plant. Developers have been talking about a plant in the New Carlisle area since the late 1970’s. Toyota Group and Ares Private Equity Group are partnering to build the new plant.

Job growth continues in the medical sectors and major construction projects are underway at Memorial Hospital in South Bend and with a new $38 million VA Clinic in Mishawaka.

Many other great projects moved forward in 2015, but much work remains to be done. We head into 2016 with great momentum. For more information I would encourage you visit SouthBendRegion.com for a closer look at these and other projects.