A $75 million public investment in Atrium Health’s “innovation district” just south of uptown received its final nod of approval Tuesday night with a majority vote from Mecklenburg County’s Board of County Commissioners.
The project will lead to the creation of a medical school, a hotel, residential tower, offices and retail space. The City Council approved the project last month. Both the city and the county have now agreed to pitch in with a combination of a $60 million tax increment grant and $15 million in bonds, which will be reimbursed.
Essentially, the county will pay back 90% of taxes that it would normally collect on the property for about 15 years or until that amount reaches about $38 million, according to a presentation from Atrium. The county will still collect the remaining 10%, and will collect the full amount of taxes once its commitment is met.
Commissioner Leigh Altman said the project is “an absolute winner for this community,” adding that every dollar it collects from corporations is a dollar that is does not have to collect from residents.
In a presentation to county commissioners, Atrium reported that the innovation district could bring in more than $50 million in county taxes over the next 20 years. On the other hand, if multifamily residences were constructed, there would be an estimated tax return of about $14.6 million for the county.
Commissioner Mark Jerrell said the county must think about how it will fund future projects. This investment, he said, could help pay for “a myriad of priorities” over the next several decades.
“This is critical to the future of our community,” he said.
Construction is expected to begin in 2022 and the new medical school is scheduled to open in 2024, the Observer previously reported. Atrium estimates that the district will create 11,500 jobs county-wide.
Along with the innovation district, Atrium agreed as part of the deal with city and county officials to donate land to Inlivian, Charlotte’s housing authority, for affordable housing units. Atrium said this effort will create at least 400 new affordable housing units at a development near NoDa.
Part of the public investment also will help fund the creation of 800 parking spaces, which will be free to the public on evenings and weekends for community and events, according to Atrium. Of those 800 spaces, 120 will be free and open to the public 24/7.
There has been some concern from residents, though.
Some people living near the site of the innovation district, which is planned for midtown, worried how the development might impact people in nearby Cherry and other neighborhoods. They cited the previous displacements of Black residents in Charlotte, particularly in Brooklyn during the urban renewal of the 1960s. More than 1,000 families were displaced from Brooklyn between 1960 and 1967, according a brief neighborhood history published by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Responding to those concerns, Atrium has committed to forming a community advisory council to help avoid any unintended consequences for nearby residents.
County Commissioner Laura Meier, though, said she heard from community activists who didn’t trust that Atrium would maintain its commitment to respecting community input. She said she trusted Atrium to hold to its promise.
Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said the county is giving too much to the project in exchange for what has been promised. Citing, among other things, uncertainty about the commitment for 400 affordable housing units, she said the deal was made up of “so many details and contingencies that it takes an army of attorneys to design and construct it.”
“This is said to be a transformational project, but who and how many of our people will really be transformed?” she said.
Rodriguez-McDowell proposed a more modest public investment, but it did not receive majority support.
Board of County Commissioners Chair George Dunlap pointed to the need for public investment to secure large projects like the innovation district. He said he would not want to be the commissioner voting to raise taxes on residents when they could have found that money by taxing a corporation.
“It would really concern me to think that in a few years we had to raise taxes because we were not smart enough to accept a proposal that would have helped alleviate that tax burden,” he said. “These kinds of innovations and deals help keep taxpayers’ dollars in the community and keep the tax rate low.”
Commissioner Pat Cotham said the community would greatly benefit from the jobs, but also from the economic boost that a medical school could provide to Charlotte. The positive impact from the school, she said, will continue for generations.
“It is way past time to do this,” she said, adding later: “I just wish we all had champagne.”