County manager opposes incentives for McPherson Hospital project

May. 04, 2013 @ 06:47 PM

County Commissioners on Monday will mull a hotel developer’s request for $1 million in incentives from their government to get a long-delayed project at the corner of West Main, West Morgan and Watts streets off the ground.

But County Manager Mike Ruffin is recommending that commissioners turn down the request from the Concord Hospital Enterprises Co.

Ruffin said Concord’s planned hotel isn’t close enough to the Durham Convention Center and isn’t saving enough of the former McPherson Hospital to be worth the county’s money.

“This one, I think, [has] just a very weak argument for us to incentivize,” Ruffin said, drawing an unfavorable comparison to a pair of inside-the-downtown-loop hotel projects that last year received county pledges of nearly $2.7 million in tax give-backs.

A parallel $1 million incentive request from Concord to the city government is also pending.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said the City Council, after discussing the matter in closed session, has made the company an offer. Further conversations are on hold pending the outcome of the county’s deliberations.

Concord’s project sits on the edge of the Trinity Park neighborhood and has been in the works since the mid-2000s. It’s stalled repeatedly, first because of objections to the initial plan from some Trinity Park residents, and later because of the 2008 real-estate crash.

The project has attracted support from local preservationists because of the McPherson Hospital tie.

The building that remains has stood on the site since 1926. Contractors before the recession hit removed additions that dated from the 1940s and the 1960s.

The removals left portions of the 1926 building exposed to the elements. Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham, said the pending incentive deal is the last chance to save the structure.

“If that building sits any longer, we will lose it,” Hillis said, adding that the current plan is the only one that’s received both regulatory approval and support from interest groups like the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association.

But Ruffin downplayed the preservation benefits of the plan, saying “the only thing that’s being preserved is a third of a side wall” because the developer’s saving a façade.

Moreover, he said, the commissioners previously agreed only to subsidize hotel projects that promise to help reduce the Durham Convention Center’s operating deficits.

That means projects within walking distance, which the county defines as within a half-mile radius of the convention center.

McPherson Hospital is two-thirds of a mile from the convention center, a straight walk east on Main Street and a left turn onto Chapel Hill Street away. But Ruffin said that still puts it “way outside the half-mile.”

He also said Concord’s business plan appears to rely far more heavily on trade from Duke University and the Duke University Health System than from any business associated with the convention center.

In meetings with the developer “I’ve sat in on, the convention center was never mentioned,” Ruffin said. “Only recently has that come up, because they realized they hadn’t mentioned it.”

But Hillis said she’s dubious of the county manager’s walking-distance argument.

She hopes one day to convince the National Trust for Historic Preservation to bring its annual conference to Durham, an event that would likely draw about 3,000 people. The trust’s guidelines for judging how many hotel rooms are within walking distance of a convention site allow for a one-mile radius, she said.

Officials in city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development have also counted the rooms Concord plans to build toward the goal of 700 or so rooms that they and local business leaders think downtown needs.

Monday’s commissioners discussion will play out in public, which is unusual for Durham business-incentive deals. Most are effectively decided in closed session, only surfacing publicly when they’re certain to receive an endorsement from the commissioners, the City Council or both.

But in this case, Ruffin said, county lawyers have advised him and the commissioners that Concord’s request no longer meets the state’s definition of an economic-development matter. In their eyes, it’s strictly a preservation deal.

State law allows closed-door discussions of economic-development requests. But preservation matters must be discussed in the open.