Commissioner: Let's support county's port authority
County economic development directors often talk about the tools in their economic tool kits: enterprise zones, revolving loan funds, tax incremental financing, port authorities.
Delaware County Commissioner Dennis Stapleton said he'd like to see the county reach into its toolbox and use the port authority more often than it has since its inception in 2006.
"Port authorities around the state of Ohio are providing excellent economic development support for their communities," Stapleton said.
"Our port authority, with its lack of financial support from the board of commissioners, is like having a left-handed wrench in your toolbox when you are right-handed. You know you have the right tool; it just doesn't work."
A statutory agent of Delaware County, the port authority operates under rules established in the Ohio Revised Code and has two basic means to facilitate economic development, according to Gus Comstock, the county's director of economic development.
"The first is, the port authority can designate a project as 'for the public purpose,' which in turn allows the entities behind the project to get a tax-exempt loan at a lower interest rate," he said. "And the other is for the port authority to actually build a building and not have to pay taxes on the materials and then sell or lease it back."
Port authorities get a fee for projects they take on and are expected to put that money back into the county's economic development.
One of the reasons the port authority has been relatively inactive since 2006 was the hurried nature of its formation and an early setback, Comstock said.
"I worked for the city back in '06 and the port authority was put together almost overnight. We learned about it by reading the story in the newspaper," he said. "That first deal they did, with Citi(group), I guess a lot of people would say the port authority did not receive fair compensation. That put the authority back on its heels. It has struggled."
The port authority did provide conduit financing for the polar bear exhibit at the Columbus Zoo. Other projects have included the construction of Village Academy and, in November, the restructuring of an $18 million loan for the YMCA of Central Ohio.
YMCA representatives estimated a $200,000 savings in the first year of the new loan.
Comstock said while the port authority can serve an important role in the county's economic development, it is not a silver bullet.
"There's a delicate balance that we have to strike when using incentives," Comstock said. "My job is to go out and attract development with the least amount of public investment possible. The port authority's job is to maximize its position."
The port authority recently hired Tim Long of Long Economic Development Advisors to consult on the ways it might become more robust moving forward.
In the meantime, Stapleton sees a role for the commission in fostering the authority's growth. "I believe the Delaware County Port Authority should be financially supported by the board of commissioners as an economic development tool until such time it is a viable entity in its own right," he said.