County Takes Lead On Controversial Project, Some Council Candidates Ready | News

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An old battle over a project withdrawn from City Council consideration by a developer has resurfaced county government days away from the municipal elections.

Mayoral candidate Larry Heikkila said in a forum that the county is pursuing and intends to build an arena during a forum, The Transcript reported.

“were [county] looking at the people who are going to manage it, we are going to work with the university, the city – we are going to do everything to put that, which for me is the realization of a dream”, he declared during the Chamber of Commerce forum.

Heikkila is chairman of the county excise commission. As Trustee of the County Industrial Authority, he sits on this board along with Charles Thompson and the three County Commissioners – Darry Stacy, Harold Haralson and Rod Cleveland. Stacy and Haralson supported Heikkila and contributed to his campaign.

As noted by the transcript, the University of Oklahoma Foundation applied for tax incentives through the University North Park Tax Increase District in 2018 to build it.

The project faced resistance from council and ended up in court after former OU general counsel Fred Gipson sued in 2018 to force the foundation to hand over many records that he said were subject to the state’s open records law. The parties have settled.

The foundation withdrew its application in July 2018, which prevented the board from voting on the project and protected it for future consideration by the board. Chip Carter, then the foundation’s spokesman, said the foundation agreed not to seek tax incentives. Foundation attorney Sean Rieger said it was withdrawn due to lack of board support.

The transcript reached out to municipal candidates to survey their support or concerns about voting for an arena if elected.

County takes action

The county’s industrial authority asked consulting firm Convention Sports & Leisure in December to update an arena feasibility study it carried out for the county in 2015, District 1 Rod said. Cleveland in an interview with the Transcript last week.

“We approved a contract with Hilltop Securities last week as the authority’s financial advisor,” Cleveland said.

Hilltop’s website shows a division that specializes in municipal finance.

CS&L said in 2018 that the arena and entertainment district together could generate up to $2.1 billion in total spending over a 30-year period and $275 million in total taxes, including $90 million for the arena alone.

Local commercial real estate developer Sassan Moghadam said the county’s apparent “takeover” of the project was news to him, although he had been in contact with District 2 Darry Stacy since early 2020 about the project.

Moghadam said he wanted to see a coalition organized, including commissioners, to take on the arena as a viable tourist attraction and avoid past mistakes – such as a hefty amount of tax incentives at city expense. – which led to his death in front of the council in 2018.

“I’ve always been an arena fan,” he said. “Bringing out-of-town dollars into the Norman, not just from out-of-town but from out-of-state tourism, and a place of entertainment around it that would liven up our town a bit so that as a As adults, we can walk in this area even if we are not going to the game. When Norman has a home game, you can feel the electricity. Outside of Norman, people are coming.”

The arena would be open to OU, but many other events such as competitions, concerts and conventions, Moghadam. While getting a commitment from the OU as the “head tenant” was important to his success, he speculated that the university didn’t need to be a driver of the project like it was. had been in the past.

Moghadam said he was not an arena developer and did not have the money to invest in them.

“The draft is out of my league,” he said. “That’s not what I do. I am not an arena builder or operator.

University spokeswoman Mackenzie Scheer said in a statement that she was open to considering a partnership in the field.

“OU has a close relationship with Cleveland County and the City of Norman, and has a long history of collaborating in areas of mutual interest. The university regularly evaluates its athletics facilities, striving to ensure a top-notch experience for student-athletes, fans, and the wider OU community. In the event that the county or city wishes to propose an idea for consideration, the university is certainly willing to consider it,” the statement said.

The Arena Candidates

Some candidates for city council and mayor are strongly in favor of an arena if a proposal is brought to the council for approval.

Heikkila presented it as a path to economic development through tourism. Council candidates Scott Dixon for Ward 8, Doane Harrison, who is vying for the Ward 4 seat, and Alex Torvi for Ward 6 expressed strong support for an arena to raise sales tax revenue.

Other candidates were more cautious about his support. Mayor Breea Clark said her support would depend on more information, such as where it would be built and how it would be funded.

Gale Hobson, in Ward 4, said many factors would be part of his decision.

“The impact on local businesses, financial considerations, concerns of Ward 4 citizens, and feedback from university students must be carefully considered, openly discussed, and all viewpoints carefully considered prior to a Council vote,” a- she declared.

Ward 4 candidate Teresa Borum said there were too many variables to cast her support, but speculated it would benefit the city if it brought in tourism dollars, new businesses and jobs .

Borum also echoed the sentiments of mayoral candidate “Midway” Bob Thompson, who said a major project should be put to a vote if it involves tax incentives. The charter does not require a vote to approve proposed tax increases, but as chair of the charter review commission, Thompson suggested last year that the council consider it – despite the absence recommendation of the commission on the matter.

As originally proposed, Thompson said the project would have used both municipal sales tax and property tax.

“It’s a very large, very long-term project that carries a significant risk to the city’s treasury if it’s not commercially successful,” Thompson said. “I am in favor of pursuing an arena as a matter of a public vote. If it were proposed as a draft general obligation obligation, it would also require a vote.

Thompson also said he would only support it on the board if the results are “tangible and measurable” and if the funding mechanism was a property tax increase funding incentive rather than a sales tax.

“It would also require the cooperation of our county partners,” he said.

Ward 8 Matt Peacock said he was interested in the project and favored funding through property tax increases or public-private partnership as long as the district did not “pull resources from other parts of the city” .

Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman declined to comment. Ward 2 Lauren Schueler, her opponent John Argo and Ward 4 candidate Helen Grant did not respond to a request for comment. Mayoral candidates Alice Stephenson-Leuck and Dr. Nicole Kish did not return requests for comment.

The transcript sought comment from Stacy and Haralson regarding the county’s interest in the arena after Cleveland was unable to answer additional questions. County spokeswoman Joy Hampton said Stacy referred questions from the newspaper to Haralson, who led the project. Haralson did not respond.

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