by Paul Blest
A conversation between Wake County Commissioners turned contentious Monday as a member of the board felt two "very highly" ranked projects were being overlooked during a process designed to set future funding priorities.
Ultimately, the board voted to give the organizers of six projects an opportunity to make a play for a chunk of the $3.3 million in food and beverage tax money that became available after a plan for a basketball park in Knightdale stalled. But two projects that scored highly among a nine-person review team won’t even get a chance to present: the Morgan Street Foodhall, a 21,000-square-foot project by Hibernian Pub and Raleigh Beer Garden owner Niall Hanley that promises to bring more than sixty shops, kiosks, and food carts to Downtown Raleigh, and the Capital Athletic Pavilion, a 100,000-square-foot indoor sportsplex in Raleigh.
Hence, the rub.
The snub of Morgan Street Foothall was particularly curious, as out of the fourteen projects being mulled over by the county manager's office in recent weeks, it received the third highest ranking from a nine-person review team; however, the county manager and city attorney concluded that it was "not a qualified use for this funding source."
"The county manager did not recommend providing funding for the Morgan Street Foodhall & Market project, because although the concept is unique, the facility would operate like a food market or restaurant," Wake County communications director Dara Demi told the INDY today." After collaboration with the county attorney, the county manager does not feel that those are qualified uses for this funding source, based on the criteria in the enabling state legislation."
Demi also said that the reason CAP wasn't included on the county manager's list was because there would be no leftover money if his recommended six projects are funded.
According to the project recommendations—which can be seen below—Hibernian requested a $510,000 grant from Wake County, which would have amounted to a third of the project's expected cost. Without the county funding, the request says, it's likely the project's scope will be smaller. (Hanley declined to comment until he found out more information about the project's fate.)
Commissioner John Burns wanted more information about the county manager's decision to exclude the projects from his recommended short list, and proposed a plan to hear presentations from organizers of eight of the proposed facilities: the six who won approval from the county manager, Hibernian, and Capital Athletic Pavilion—CAP placed 8th with the review teams.
"There was one that our panel ranked very highly, and it was pulled off the list, and I just want to know more about that project," Burns said. "I understand that these two projects scored very highly, but they received demerits...I’d like to find out more information."
The plan met objection, however, from Commissioner Sig Hutchinson who said, "I personally think that staff did a great job." And Chairman James West said he was concerned that including the other two projects would set a bad precedent for future funding decisions. (A proposal to hear presentations from all of the projects, including those that scored low according to both the review teams and the county manager, was quickly shot down.)
After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to stick only to hearing presentations from projects recommended by the county manager, a move Burns made clear he thinks is a mistake.
“I think (Hibernian and CAP Sports) certainly should (be given the chance to give a presentation),” Burns told the INDY after the meeting. “Both projects have significant merit and I would like to hear more about them. We have other alternatives and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to get to where we need to be.”
Here are the projects that were approved: