19 December 2017

Stanton Springs/JDA 1st Report: Some Definite Concerns

[State of GA]
[Newton Co.]

(Covington * 12/18/17) -

The long and winding story of the Stanton Springs development & the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton & Walton counties (JDA) goes back almost 20 years to the late 1990s. The original vision was a grandiose plan of creating a four-county authority and purchasing 1500 acres of land right next to I-20 in an area where those four counties converged to create, as an AJC article mentioned in 1999, high-tech companies with high-wage jobs. Having four different taxing jurisdictions coming together could spread the cost and risk and would help make a reality of a dream that maybe couldn't have come together otherwise.

It sounded pretty good. But...

The problems with this project, which has officially put hundreds of thousands of taxpayers throughout these four counties on the hook for over $1.2 billion* and has been described as a boondoggle by many, began almost immediately.

The aforementioned land was owned by a timber trust and was at the time offered for approx. $3.7 million ($2400/acre) based on information at the time. Two different appraisals ordered during this period put the value somewhere between $2.8 million & approx $5 million. So the asking price actually seemed to be fairly reasonable. So what did the property end up selling for? $7.5 million according to our information. So, to recap, the land was offered for $3.7 million, appraised for somewhere between approx three to five million, but then sold for almost twice the asking price. Why the inflated sales price? And who profited from this? So, a major money concern right there at the beginning.

Also, the original bond offering at the time - the one that friend-of-the-program Samuel Hay tried to stop in court  - was for $9 million. There were many grumblings and concerns with all of this at the time. Money, it was said, was needed for consultants, attorney fees & operating expenditures.

Fast forward a few years and the JDA ended up selling a parcel of land, described as parcel # C1590001C in the Walton Co. tax records, to JC Flex, LLC. This entity, a subsidiary of the TPA Realty Group that has had the exclusive listing rights of Stanton Springs, bought the land for approx $1.6 million in 2005. But then in 2012, the Authority bought that parcel back for $2.9 million. A gain of approx $1.3 million. This is the parcel where the Baxter Baxalta Shire facility was actually built, so in order to be eligible for the tax abatements, the land had to be owned by the Authority, which, as mentioned, it originally was, but was sold and bought back for reasons that no one has been able to explain to this publication. Again, this seemingly unnecessary flip cost the Authority - and by extension, the taxpayers of the four counties - approx. $1.3 million 

But really, in the grand scheme of things, this would all almost seem like chump change. Let's not forget that the JDA issued $1.137 BILLION in bonds in 2012 for the construction of the Baxter Baxalta Shire facility, or the $85 million in "phantom bonds" that the authority issued last year. And remember when Mort Ewing resigned from the JDA in 2015? He said in the newspapers at the time that he felt like he needed to do that in order to "protect [his] assets."


One common thread in my discussions with folks both on and off the record is that the Stanton Springs project has had many problems and issues. Even its biggest cheerleaders will tell you that major mistakes have been made. And it seems to be a consensus view by many that you can lay most  of the blame at the feet of William Thomas Craig, Esq. Craig was involved with the project from its conception, and served as the attorney for the Authority, as we understand it, for the entirety of its existence up until a couple of years ago. "Hell...we figured Tommy knew what he was doing," was a line from one person when explaining a mistake that was made several years back pertaining to a particular situation. So I guess Craig can add the JDA to the Newton Co. BOC & others as those who have made him their "whipping boy." At this point it seems to be getting pretty convenient and is happening more frequently - just blame it all on Tommy Craig. Well, just like with Newton Co., I think there's a lot of other blame to go around. And, yes, it does seem pretty convenient to just blame it all on Tommy Craig. Too convenient almost. Is that just the way it is? Or is it by design?

Another emerging theme I've encountered is that some folks think it's time to just let the past be the past. That the time has come where we should just accept the fact that perhaps things weren't done as they should've been, but now we need to look forward to the future with a common goal and a shared vision. That we just need to hang in and that all of this will be worth it once everything comes to fruition.

I'm of the opinion that more attention needs to be given to Stanton Springs and the JDA than ever before. Look for future write-ups on this topic.

Until next time.


*updated corrected figure