Despite objections from Cindy Hill and some Wyoming lawmakers, a state board on Thursday altered an earlier decision and approved a $2.5 million loan to develop infrastructure on the site of a proposed conference center near downtown Casper.
The decision by the State Loan and Investment Board provides a boost to a project that appeared all but dead three weeks ago. But the loan is less than the $5 million grant the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board originally requested, and less than the $3 million grant and $2 million loan package recommended by the Wyoming Business Council in December.
The joint powers board chairman, Bryce Row, said his board will have to meet with private developers from Refined Properties and JJM to see how the new amount affects the project.
“We’re thankful for their approval,” Row said of the State Loan and Investment Board’s decision. “We’re going to have to go back and sit down and hopefully bring this to a positive conclusion.”
The meeting was the second look at the joint powers board's proposal to develop former refinery land into a commercial district, with a conference center and luxury hotel as the anchor.
Some critics thought once was enough.
“We are becoming known as the re-hear, redo and re-vote state,” said Rep. Garry Piiparinen, R– Uinta. “Is this to be our destiny as a state?”
State Schools Superintendent Cindy Hill agreed – cracking that Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning was looking for a rehearing, too. Hill repeatedly pressed Assistant Attorney General Justin Daraie about whether it was legal to rescind a Jan. 16 Investment board vote rejecting the Wyoming Business Council’s recommendation for a grant-loan package. Daraie confirmed its legality.
State Treasurer Mark Gordon cited a “complicated, convoluted, somewhat confusing presentation” at the Jan. 16 meeting leading board members to believe they were giving money directly to the conference center and hotel project itself, not the infrastructure on the site.
Since then, the four members who originally voted against the project have visited the site and received clarification, which led to Thursday’s reconsideration.
“I would have hoped they would have had their ducks in a row before it went down four to one,” State Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Uinta, said.
Hill remained unconvinced after her visit. She said the money amounted to a government subsidy to help compete against existing businesses. Jaggi shared her concern.
“I think the basic philosophy is that we ought to have free enterprise doing these things instead of government involvement,” Jaggi said. “The whole role of the Wyoming Business Council is something I’d like to look at — whether that’s what we should be doing.”
A Casper contingent, led primarily by Refined Properties part-owner Richie Bratton, Vice Mayor Charlie Powell, joint powers board Vice Chairman Neil Benton and City Manager John Patterson, fielded questions about the history of the conference center and and tried to stress the benefits of the infrastructure project for the state investment board.
“No matter what happens, we need to develop that area to start offering it to potential business, whatever it is,” Benton said.
Proponents painted a picture of an expanded, vibrant, walkable city core, stretching from David Street through the Old Yellowstone District and anchored by a hotel and conference center on what would otherwise be unused, empty land on the west end.
After discussion, the state board voted 4-to-1, with Hill dissenting, to yank their old vote and start fresh. State Auditor Cynthia Cloud suggested a $2.5 million loan. The original request was for a $5 million grant. Cloud reasoned that half of the 35-acre infrastructure project was being installed for businesses that aren’t predetermined. She wanted to see the city and county come up with the rest.
State Secretary Max Maxfield tried to amend Cloud's proposal to be a $3.4 million grant, which was all the money left in the Business Council’s account. He explained that $900,000 was not enough to support any big projects, and the next time the board would consider any projects would be spring. At that point, the board expects to be working with a new two-year budget.
The amendment was not made, and the proposal passed 3-2. Hill and Maxfield voted against it. Maxfield then proposed giving the remaining $900,000 as a grant to the Casper project, but couldn’t muster any support.
After the meeting, the reuse board leadership, which applied for the grant, was uncertain about what happens next. The board, the Casper City Council and the Natrona County Commission launched a campaign of letter-writing, resolution-making and private discussion to convince the investment board to reconsider.
The Casper City Council has verbally committed to spending $2.7 million to lease property from the reuse board and, in turn, leasing it to the proposed hotel and conference center. Powell did not know how, or whether, the city’s role would change in light of the investment board’s partial loan.