Business partners spar with Belleville over TIF request, protest sign

News-DemocratJune 15, 2013 

— Two business partners interested in renovating the old Pour Haus believe their request for city tax incentives is being stalled because they didn't support the mayor in the recent election.

Dianne Rogge said the city is now also putting up a fight over a political statement in the window of her buildings at 1924 and 1926 W. Main St.

The sign reads, "No TIF for us, Tks B'ville," and refers to her request forTIF money from the city.

Mayor Mark Eckert said the city is not treating the owners differently than anyone else.

The City Council is reviewing their request for TIF money and is waiting for them to supply their business plan.

As for the sign, Eckert said Rogge need to follow the city code and get a permit.

Rogge and her business partner, Michael Buettner, as MB & DR Enterprises LLC, asked city leaders for $15,000 in TIF money to help redo the interior of the former bar.

Rogge said about $100,000 worth of work needs to be done to the buildings before they could open a sandwich shop and small grocer there. She plans to do the work regardless of the city's help.

The partners already renovated the upstairs of the buildings without business incentives from the city, and are renting the apartments.

Rogge is an environmental engineer for Jet Aviation, which is based at St. Louis Downtown Airport. Buettner is director of court services and probation for the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes St. Clair County.

Rogge said the $15,000 in TIF she's asking for is low compared to incentives the city has given to other businesses.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved a $260,000 business development agreement with the owner of Ben's. The money covers the city's purchase of a building at 18 S. High St. and two parking lots from John Conkright, and some improvements Conkright will make to 116 and 120 E. Main St.

Rogge also said she's requesting other incentives in Conkright's deal: reimbursements for facade improvements, partial rebate on property tax and sales tax abatement for remodeling.

Rogge said other deals that come to mind is when the city used $159,000 in TIF money to buy Loflin Furniture on West Main Street to turn into green space and gave Kroger Co. $200,000 in TIF money to build Ruler Foods at the old Bel-Air Bowl site.

"They seem to be passing TIF money out left and right at City Hall," Rogge said. "We would like the city to give us $15,000, like they're giving all the other people."

Eckert said the council and staff have not rejected the owners' plans, but are asking them questions so they could come up with a formula to help.

Eckert said the owners cannot compare themselves to Conkright, who has had a business in downtown for 36 years and brings in $23,000 every year in sales tax to the city.

Rogge hasn't told city leaders of any other business ventures and she can't say what her projected business revenue will be, Eckert said. He also said council members are unclear whether Rogge wants to put in a restaurant and grocery store or a liquor store.

"If they're going to ask for city incentives, if they have no track record, they have no experience and we've never dealt with them before, it's only fair we ask them questions before we give them public money," Eckert said.

City makes offer

Aldermen tabled Rogge and Buettner's business development agreement request at an Economic Development and Annexation Committee meeting June 5.

Emily Fultz said some aldermen were interested in giving the owners more incentives and that is still up for discussion.

The city typically structures incentives to be about 3 percent to 5 percent of the total project cost, Fultz said.

In this case, the city actually proposed incentives that amount to about 10 percent of the project because it is one of the first retail projects in that area, Fultz said.

The city would like to spur development in that area because of its proximity to Lindenwood University-Belleville, Fultz said.

The city proposes giving Rogge and Buettner sales tax exemption for building materials, an estimated $4,455 the owners won't have to pay in sales tax.

And, the city proposes facade improvement reimbursements of 20 percent up to $5,000 per facade.

The buildings, on a corner lot, have three facades and the owners probably would be reimbursed about $5,840, Fultz said.

Still, Rogge said the incentives are for work to the exterior of the buildings that are cosmetic and not crucial for her to open the business. She wants TIF help she can freely use to do work to the inside.

Rogge said the June 5 meeting upset her because aldermen, political allies of Eckert, asked her for information about business plans and personal finances that they did not ask of other businesses seeking incentives.

Rogge said independent aldermen on the council, not in Eckert's Good Government Party, even questioned why Rogge had to provide more information than other businesses.

"It got to the point where I wondered, 'What is the criteria for approving TIF?' and none of them could tell me that," Rogge said. "The city of Belleville needs to have criteria set in stone over how they're going to pass out the tax dollars."

Rogge said she counted more than 20 vacant buildings on West Main Street between 20th Street, near her buildings, to the Public Square. She questions why the city wouldn't help a small business owner looking to invest in downtown.

Eckert said the city cares about businesses and wants downtown to grow, but every business agreement is different and has to be treated on a case by case basis.

Sign flap

Rogge thinks the city's opposition could only stem from one thing: She publicly supported Phil Elmore for mayor.

Elmore, a former Ward 7 alderman, unsuccessfully ran against Eckert for mayor in the April 9 election.

"Eckert holds the purse strings," Rogge said. "We put a little bee in his bonnet so he's not going to support us."

Leading up to the election, Rogge had an Elmore campaign sign in the same spot where she now has the sign about TIF.

"I feel like I'm being discriminated against because of my political choice," Rogge said. "Who do you have to vote for to get anything in this city because apparently I didn't put the right sign in my business window."

Eckert said Rogge's allegation is untrue.

"I'm a big boy and I've had a lot of people I've worked with over the years who have been against me in this election or other elections," Eckert said. "The Phil Elmore sign, it doesn't bother me in the least. Hell, I've had signs up that say Mayor Eckert sucks."

Both during and since the election, Belleville landlord and resident Rick Brown displayed signs that said, "Eckert Sux as Mayor."

Eckert said critics would be on his case if the council gave Rogge incentives without reviewing her credentials.

"I can tell you lots of people who got TIF money that were not political allies," Eckert said. "If they fulfill the criteria and it's a good thing for Belleville, whether they're my personal friends or allies has nothing to do with this."

Eckert said the owners have to follow the rules for the sign permit.

Rogge said the city did not ask her to get a permit for the political sign during election season. The city also did not require a permit when she had a sign in the window advertising the apartments for rent.

After the June 5 committee meeting, Rogge put up the sign about TIF in the ground floor window of her building.

The day after, Rogge got a notice stating the sign had to be removed because it is in violation of the city's property maintenance code and no permit was issued for the sign.

Rogge and Buettner said they do not plan to take the sign down.

Bob Sabo, the city's director of health, housing, building and zoning, said the city got an anonymous complaint about Rogge's sign.

"We don't go out and randomly look at buildings for signs," Sabo said. "We can't make sure every sign on every building has a permit. When it came to our attention, we checked to see if there was a sign permit applied."

Paul Bauman, the city's building commissioner, said the city's not telling the owners the sign can't be up.

But the sign has to be approved for that location, and follow the city's sign code regulating size and other criteria, Bauman said.

The owners have to pay for a sign permit. The fee is 50 cents per square foot, and at least $15 if the sign is less than a square-foot.

Bauman said the owners wouldn't need a permit if they put up a political sign for a candidate or referendum on a ballot.

"You wouldn't want to put up a sign that advertises a service or sale you don't provide at that location," Bauman said. "Theirs is more of a political statement."

The city's sign code, however, does not mention political signs.

Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said that without such an exemption, the law protects such speech.

"A sign calling for political funding or tax breaks is very much a political statement," Paulson said. "It's part of the public policy debate and the right of the citizen to explain or express himself or herself."

Paulson said a municipality has the right to control the size and placement of signs in order to protect safety and well being.

"So the city could control dimensions, lighting, colors and graphics," Paulson said. "But they can't control the message. The city cannot pick and choose among political messages it exempts. ... The rules apply to everybody and they can't be applied selectively."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

 

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