NORMAN — A public hearing on the possible creation of a Norman Economic Development Trust Authority sounded more like a debate on what creates value in a community.
The public hearing, held on Tuesday night in city council chambers in lieu of the city council study session, drew lengthy public comments — mostly in opposition to the proposed authority.
If such an authority is created it would be subject to the same open meetings and open records laws as the city council and other public bodies, but despite this, some members of the public fear its creation forms a “shadow government” with the power to issue revenue bonds and pursue eminent domain.
In fact, bonding and any action of eminent domain would require city council approval.
Norman — the third largest city in Oklahoma — does not have an economic development trust authority. Norman is home to the only multi-year professional economic development program in the United States — a University of Oklahoma program accredited by the International Economic Development Council.
“When we succeed, our members create more high-quality jobs, develop more vibrant communities, and generally improve the quality of life in their regions,” the International Economic Development Council says on its website.
Norman is also home to the Norman Economic Development Coalition which recruits “quality” jobs in the business and industrial sectors. NEDC does not recruit retail business and is not a trust authority capable of serving as a clearing house for bonds, however.
Economic entities abound throughout Oklahoma, the United States, and the world. But the effectiveness of economic development can be hard to measure, especially against the backdrop of a struggling economy. Norman residents at the public hearing did not seem particularly interested in what other cities are doing to promote economic development.
In Norman, questions and concerns about the proposed trust authority included the need for public accountability and transparency, the purpose and need for such an entity, whether growth should unfold naturally or be aggressively pursued, and what the scope and power of such an entity would be.
No one is proposing a revenue stream or staffing for the trust authority at this point. The trust would be a financing tool according to Chamber of Commerce advocates, President John Woods and Chairman of the Board Trey Bates.
Currently, there are several trust authorities in Norman that operate to serve specific areas, the hospital, the University North Park TIF and the golf course among them. Those trusts could serve as bonding entities for economic development, but City Attorney Jeff Bryant said bond counsel — the attorneys who specialize in dealing with public financing through bonds — said mixing economic development bonds with the specific purpose of those authorities is not a good idea.
The Cleveland County Industrial Development Authority served to work out a deal that allowed Hitachi to remain in Norman. The bond secured by Hitachi through that entity was key to keeping those quality jobs in Norman said supporters of creating a Norman trust authority.
But the Cleveland County Industrial Development Authority serves the entire county. If the county trust authority were at its full bonding capacity or if there were a conflict — say Norman was competing with Moore for a business — the county trust authority might not be the ideal vehicle to handle the job.
The Norman trust authority would provide funding when needed for projects, whatever those might look like.
The idea for the Trust Authority was introduced through the Business and Community Affairs committee, chaired by Council member Hal Ezzell. Discussions have been ongoing in that committee and in city council study sessions since August.
“It (the trust authority) is a project specific vehicle,” Ezzell said.
What project does the city have in mind?
“We really don’t have a specific project,” Bryant said.
“Other cities and other communities aggressively and proactively recruit business,” Bates said. “It (a development trust authority) gives us the ability to provide financing.”
“If you have it on the books, you can have a project take shape,” Woods said.
Public comments varied widely, but most of those who spoke opposed or were leery about the proposal.
Stephen Ellis expressed concerns about “public accountability” and quality of life.
“Development isn’t just about economics,” Ellis said.
“Growth is a good thing, but it doesn’t come without cost,” said Cindy Rogers, an economist and OU professor.
Benefits of growth include increased tax revenue, more businesses and more amenities, Rogers said. But those gains are not without cost. The impact on existing residents and businesses, including increased traffic, noise and pollution were among her concerns.
She said it is the city’s role to provide public services such as good roads, water, and sewer to support growth
“Promoting growth is a different thing, and that’s where the risk comes in,” Rogers said.
For many, Rogers included, eminent domain — the power to claim private property for public use such as right-of-way was an issue.
“Eminent domain is a really big stick,” Rogers said.
Attorney Jim Harvey questioned whether creating an economic development trust authority is putting the cart before the horse.
“Economic development is going to happen if the city provides a fertile environment,” Harvey said.
That environment includes good roads, water and sewage, he said.
“When you know where you are going, then it becomes easy to draft an appropriate document,” Harvey said.
Bryant and Woods said that the proposed trust indenture is standard language used in other Oklahoma municipalities. Many of those cities have had an economic development trust authority for years.
The Norman City Council will discuss and debate the trust authority at the June 12 meeting and could potentially vote to adopt or reject the proposal to create the trust at that time.
The composition of the trust authority board has been greatly debated. Originally outlined as members of the business, banking, and development community, the latest proposal has the authority comprised of city council members with business and banking professionals serving on an advisory board.
Either way, the authority would be subject to open meetings laws.