The State Loan and Investment Board voted 4-1 Thursday against a $3 million grant and $2 million loan to install infrastructure on the old Amoco Refinery property west of downtown Casper, likely killing plans for a conference center on the site.
“What a shock. We certainly didn’t see that coming,” Casper City Manager John Patterson said. “I think it has a devastating effect.”
Only Gov. Matt Mead voted in favor of the state funding help.
According to the latest Casper conference center proposal, JJM Hotel Group would secure $23 million in private investments and the Amoco Reuse Joint Powers Board would loan the group $6 million with an option of up to $8 million. The city of Casper would buy 17 acres of land for $2.6 million from the Amoco Reuse Board and lease it to JJM Hotel Group. Another $2 million would come from naming rights.
The end goal was a 200-room Crowne Plaza Luxury Hotel and attached 48,000 square-foot convention center.
The Amoco Reuse Board applied for a $5 million state grant, but the Wyoming Business Council board recommended a $3 million grant and $2 million loan to the State Loan and Investment Board, which has final say.
Patterson said the state’s unwillingness to spend $3 million on what was an estimated $35 million project sent a “terrible message” to investors and developers.
“I don’t know what the next step forward is,” Casper Mayor Paul Meyer said. “I’m not sure what our alternatives are. (The conference center) failed in the city realm, it failed in the private realm, and I don’t see a whole lot of enthusiasm out there.”
Proposal without a home
This wasn’t the first time a Casper hotel and conference center proposal failed.
Billed as a “game changer” by city officials, conference center proposals have struggled to find financial backing for years.
In 2011, three proposals were brought before the city including a new-construction plan for the Amoco Refinery site and an upgrade to the Parkway Plaza Hotel and Convention Centre.
Studies completed in 2012 identified downtown Casper as the ideal place for a conference center, but a post-election shift on the City Council left member enthusiasm waning. A 5-4 vote for the land purchase failed to convince hoteliers there was enough support from the city, and Refined Properties, the company hired to develop the area on behalf of the Amoco Reuse Joint Powers Board, brought forward the latest proposal.
Competition pushes back
The Business Council board noted the city’s tepid response to the proposed conference center during its December deliberations. But the board voted 9-3 to recommend a $3 million grant and $2 million loan, which developers said still made for a feasible project.
Parkway Plaza Hotel & Convention Centre owner Pat Sweeney told the Business Council board the proposed conference center would put his business at a disadvantage, according to minutes from the December meeting.
“Yes, I’m fighting for my business and my 140 employees’ livelihoods,” Sweeney said Thursday afternoon. “I hope the public and the community of Casper understands that this wasn’t against the community, this wasn’t just for me and the survival of my business.”
Sweeney said he spoke at Thursday’s State Loan and Investment Board meeting on behalf of people around the state who disagreed with using public funds for the project.
“This wasn’t about sour grapes because of the location of the conference center," he said during a phone interview after the meeting. "I just feel so strongly it is an inappropriate use of public funds to compete against a small business, or any kind of business.
“That’s my problem.”
Two projects, different results
Those in support of the conference center maintained it was an infrastructure project, similar to the $1 million grant for Casper's Old Yellowstone District, which the Loan and Investment Board approved in full.
That project will improve 12,000 square yards of sidewalk, including curbs, gutters, pedestrian and bike lanes, benches, planters and lighting.
Sweeney said the difference was the Amoco Reuse project was primarily for the benefit of one business.
“Seemed to me that it was a situation of they needed the dollars for the infrastructure, otherwise it would not go forward, therefore they would probably stop,” Sweeney said. “So the differentiation in my mind is that’s definitely public dollars to compete against our existing full-service hotels.”
Sweeney added that the board’s vote should serve as a “wake-up call” to the Business Council about how to appropriately use public money for economic development programs.
The Loan and Investment Board fully approved 12 projects around the state totaling $10,524,105. The Amoco Reuse Board's project was the only request denied.
“This is really what capitalism is about: If there truly is a need, they should be able to get this financed elsewhere, rather than on the taxpayer's back,” Sweeney said.
Vote kills the project
Refined Properties owner Richie Bratton said he was shocked and disappointed by the board’s decision.
Bratton's father, Dick, is also a partner in Refined Properties and serves on the Business Council.
He emphasized the $3 million grant was the only public money in a $35 million project -- $23 million from private investment -- that wouldn’t be paid back.
“At this point, the project is off the table as far as financial ability for us,” Bratton said. “Without participation on some level of either city or state, private developers are probably not going to be able to make it pencil out.”
Amoco Reuse Board Chairman Bryce Row was also disappointed and said the vote “effectively killed plans for the conference center.”