Update: Up to $7.5 million grant from west side tax fund approved for aquarium
By Maggie Lee
This story is an update of a Monday report.
By a 4-3 vote, Atlanta’s development authority approved a grant of up to $7.5 million from a special tax fund for the expansion of the privately-owned Georgia Aquarium. Everyone’s thankful for the philanthropy behind a valuable tourist draw Downtown, but not everyone thought the city should show its appreciation by spending that much cash from a fund that can also be used for affordable housing.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took the lead endorsing the spend.
Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and other funders took a chance on the west side of Atlanta when they started the aquarium, said Bottoms.
The city has never put money from its general bank account into the aquarium. She argued that it’s worth the city showing that it’s a partner in the venture. The expansion is going to cost some $108 million.
“We shouldn’t make assumptions that people will continue to invest their money in our city,” said Bottoms, speaking Monday morning to the board of Invest Atlanta, of which she’s a member.
But board member Fred Smith said the idea doesn’t work for him from the point of view of equity or fiscal responsibility.
“Given that this is going to happen regardless of the $7.5 million, that doesn’t work for me,” said Smith, a lawyer and Emory professor.
Yes, the city will get more sales taxes if the aquarium is busier, but if the aquarium is expanding anyway, he argued, the city will get the benefit whether they put in $7.5 million or not.
And the spend is a little different from writing a check from the city’s main bank account. It’s from a special fund that’s supposed to deliver several specific benefits to the west side. Yes, those objectives include making part of the area into a 24-hour entertainment district, but they also include supporting new housing at a mix of income levels.
The grant comes from the Westside TAD — a district where an increment of property taxes are plowed back into the district, typically for private projects meant to generate yet more growth and, down the line, more taxes to pay for city operations.
But then again, what if a developer came and asked for money to pay for putting a few below-market-rate apartments in a new building? That’s something else TAD money is regularly used for: trying to make sure Atlanta accommodates people of all incomes.
Invest Atlanta staff also said that the city would recoup the money in five years of aquarium-generated sales taxes. They also said the fund generates $4.5 million to $5 million per year, and the aquarium money would be allocated over seven years, so there would still be money available for housing or other projects.
Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, also an IA board member, voted against. She’s concerned that the jobs that would be created at the aquarium wouldn’t even pay enough to accommodate living Downtown. She also said she’s convinced the aquarium will be expanded without Westside TAD money.
But below-market-rate housing? Maybe not.
“What we know fundamentally is dollars will drive affordable housing,” she said.
Board member Randy Hazelton, who’s CEO of H & H Hospitality, said the vote was difficult for him, but he came to rest at ease with approval when he looks at it as being a public partner to Marcus’ vast philanthropy in Atlanta.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Legislature renewed a state sales tax break for large aquarium construction. It’s capped at about $4.5 million.
In other business at Invest Atlanta on Wednesday:
- It was confirmed that Starbucks plans to open a large office in Midtown, employing 500 people full-time and occupying 85,000 square feet of real estate. The deal became public because of Invest Atlanta’s action in applying for a $250,000 state grant — a sort of deal-closing cash that cities and counties can use to help lure larger business that are considering other states. Starbucks was reportedly scouting the city months ago; the prospect was known as “Project Yogurt.”
- Invest Atlanta’s board unanimously voted to grant $2 million from the Westside TAD for rehabilitation of 143 Alabama Street, AKA, the former Atlanta Constitution building. Atlanta’s city planning department will lease part of it, which Invest Atlanta staff said would mean a savings over rent. And part of it will be residential, with 34 units priced below market rate, to be “affordable” for folks making 80 percent of area median income. In dollar terms, that means maximum rent for a studio, for example, set at $1,047.