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Council wants chance to review deal

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The members of the Franklin City Council didn’t get a say, despite asking, in whether to sell the former city hall to a restaurant developer.

The city’s redevelopment commission will finalize a deal Monday to sell the former city hall. But city council members had raised concerns about whether the developer has the money to complete the project and whether the brewpub would be the best use for the building.

A change in state law taking effect July 1 would require the elected city council to approve selling any property owned by the appointed redevelopment commission. The commission set a special meeting for Monday to finalize the deal, one week from when the new law takes effect. Council members asked the commission to wait until after July 1 and make a presentation to the council before agreeing to sell the building.

Council President Steve Barnett and members Joe Abban and Joe Ault raised concerns about whether the commission is rushing the deal to avoid having to get the extra approval.

“July 1 doesn’t matter. If it’s a good idea and it has to come in front of the city council, no one is going to say anything about it. I think we have enough common sense on the council to make a good business decision,” Abban said. “If they’re pushing it because of that, that makes me think there’s something wrong with the deal.”

Redevelopment commission members said the timing is coincidental and they’ve been working with 55 West Madison LLC, a recently formed company headed by Franklin resident Phil Warrenburg, for almost a year to negotiate the deal. Delaying the sale could derail the project, commission president Bob Heuchan said.

The commission has done extensive work to check the developer’s financial plan and protect the investment the city is making with tax dollars. Requiring even more review could send a poor message to other developers, commission member Jay Goad said.

“Other investors are going to come to this city and say, ‘I’m not going through this circus,’” Goad said.

The commission gave initial approval to the deal this week and set the special meeting for Monday on a 4-1 vote. Member Rob Henderson, who is also a city council member, voted against it, saying he wanted council members to have input.

“I think there would have been a pleasant outcome and a lot of support,” Henderson said.

The redevelopment commission and city council clashed earlier this year on a decision to spend $500,000 in tax dollars to buy laptops for Franklin Community High School. Five out of seven council members were opposed to buying the computers, but the redevelopment commission decided to make the purchase. Council members had issues with that purchase because there wasn’t good communication between the panels and they felt like the deal was being rushed, which is similar to what is happening now with the city hall, Barnett said.

Barnett has researched on his own to learn more about the brewpub plan and the safeguards built into the contract to protect the city, such as a mortgage on the building and investment benchmarks the developer needs to reach.

But he is still concerned because the developer hasn’t raised all of the money it promised yet. Other council members haven’t gotten as much information, so he wanted the redevelopment commission to wait and present the proposal to the council so they could ask their own questions, he said.

Council attorney Lynn Gray also would have a chance to review the contract and give her opinion on how well it protects the city’s interests, he said.

The current agreement has been worked on by the redevelopment commission and developer’s attorneys, but another review could be beneficial, he said.

“You want to be able to communicate and talk to people and tell us why, RDC, why you want to do this,” Barnett said. “I think this will be a good project if the funding is there and they move forward in a timely manner. I’m not against this, but I’m for communication. If everyone communicates together, good things happen.”

Commission members and developer attorney Eric Prime dismissed as coincidental the sale being finalized before the July 1 date of the law change. Warrenburg already has waited during the lengthy negotiation that started in March and agreed to city demands, such as

requiring him to take out an additional life insurance policy in case he died before the project was complete, commission members said.

Delaying the project another month or two could discourage additional investors that are needed to complete the project, Prime and Heuchan said.

“If we get this pushed past July, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Heuchan said. “It’s going to continue to sit empty if we push this back any more.”

The redevelopment commission has combed through the developer’s financial plan and proposal, reviewed the numbers and drafted a solid contract that protects the city’s interest in the building, Goad said. City council members, some of whom want to see the city hall turned into a new city court, aren’t as familiar with that information, he said.

“We’ve got a few people that are not dealing with numbers, they’re dealing with emotions,” he said.

The unfamiliarity with the plan is exactly why the council should get some input, Barnett said. If the council members could learn more about the project, they would either quickly recognize it is a good deal or be able to get answers to their questions if they’re not yet convinced, Barnett and Abban said.

“Why would you not take the extra two weeks and allow the council hear the whole story and have that extra comfort level?” Barnett said.

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