MORGANTOWN - As West Virginia continues its search for a new baseball coach, the school is also keeping an eye on efforts in Monongalia County to finance and build a new stadium that the team hopes to one day use.Those plans are progressing, but with some major questions to be answered.The Monongalia County Commission this week agreed to the initial step of holding a public hearing on a proposal to finance a new ballpark with a tax increment financing (TIF) district. That initial hearing is set for June 27.But those same commissioners expressed some serious concerns about rushing into a major project that seems to have so many obstacles."I'm still not real clear on the project. There are a number of issues,'' commission president Bill Bartolo was quoted by MetroNews. "I'm sure the public hearing will take the time to clear those up and the people who have the answers will be there.''Among the concerns expressed by commissioners were those involving infrastructure. The new facility is planned for University Town Center, just off the Star City exit of Interstate 79, and there are questions about traffic, utilities and many other issues.Attorneys for Mon-View LLC, which developed University Town Center, spoke to the Commission and urged the members to quickly set the date for the public hearing to get the project moving.That's because the developers have already suffered one setback in an effort to establish a TIF district to finance the project. In February, a bill in the state legislature creating a TIF district for the project was shelved because paperwork had not been completed.A TIF district is designed to use tax revenues above a certain amount to finance projects. Officials designate a certain area in which taxes are collected normally, but any amount above an established level is devoted to the project.
In the case of the ballpark, developers hope to use both a sale TIF and a property TIF for financing. The county must approve the property TIF and the state must approve the sale TIF.One major stumbling block with the county commission seems to be the number of moving parts in the project. Commissioners appear to be wary of moving ahead given that the state legislature must also move on its part of the TIF. They are also concerned about setting the project in motion without infrastructure improvements already in place.For instance, developers are pushing for a new interchange that would connect the ballpark area and the University Town Center to I-79, but admit that wouldn't even be started until perhaps two years after what they hope is a 2014 opening of the park.There is also the matter of additional retail shops and restaurants in the area, something that developers pitched as an added benefit to construction of the ballpark and infrastructure improvements. Commissioners seem more likely to give their stamp of approval to the ballpark if it will also help generate more businesses and, thus, more tax revenue. But developers, while they believe the park will generate that interest from retailers, are only building the stadium."The original proposal was more expanded than this,'' Bartolo said. "I have a problem handing over taxpayer money just for a ballpark.''West Virginia University officials support the project - which has received informal approval from the two small municipalities in the area, Granville and Westover - but are not playing a major role in the development. Developers hope that the new facility would be home to some sort of minor league professional team, which would then run the facility and allow WVU to play there.
West Virginia hopes to use the facility as a replacement for on-campus Hawley Field, which is antiquated and not sufficient to host games in the school's new conference, the Big 12. Until a new stadium is built, the Mountaineers are likely to play their Big 12 home games in one of the minor league parks in southern West Virginia, perhaps Charleston's Appalachian Power Park.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.