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City's Motown forum goes off without any criticism

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Anyone who expected Vandalia officials to hear criticism about the $300-million sports and entertainment complex proposed for the city’s west side during a public forum last Thursday were likely surprised.

That forum, set up by city officials after some residents asked for more information about the project proposed by Motown Technology and Sports Facility Inc., was exactly that – an informational meeting.

Because there were just a few questions from the crowd of more than 50 people, the forum consisted mainly of a presentation by JoAnn Givens, the city’s director of economic development and tourism, and the city’s main contact with the West Bloomfield, Mich., group planning to build the 2-million-square-foot facility.

The facility, Givens said, will include a water and surf park, an arena with 15 VIP suites that can seat up to 9,000 people, a gym and fitness area, indoor soccer facilities, a rock-climbing wall, daycare facilities, an arcade, 10-story hotel and two 200-seat IMAX (Image Maximum) theaters.

“It will be a family-oriented tourism attraction, with a heavy emphasis on sports,” Givens said, adding that Motown plans to target a national sports market. About 55 percent of the market, she said, is outside Illinois.

Givens’ presentation included answers to the questions that have been most-frequently asked by residents since the city signed an agreement with Motown in May.

The most-asked question, she said, is, “Why Vandalia?” for this project.

“We are in an excellent geographical location,” Givens said. “We are on Interstate 70, we’re close to Interstate 55 and Interstate 57, and we’re an hour from St. Louis,” she said.

The 150 acres south of Wal-Mart on which the facility would be located, she said, “is a perfect location for this. It’s close to I-70, meaning that it will be very visible from the interstate.”

Motown also chose Vandalia, she said, because they were “impressed with the professionalism of the city.”

City officials were on the lookout for projects such as this because Fayette County has close to 950 unemployed residents, she said. The area that includes Bond, Fayette, Montgomery and Effingham counties, Givens said, has more than 4,500 unemployed residents.

“We thought, ‘We’ve got to start looking at ways to get a large number of people employed,” she said.

As to the types of jobs that the Motown project will offer, Givens said, “They will have everything from a general manager down to dishwashers. The salaries will range from $8 an hour to six figures.”

On the question as to when city residents can feel more assured that the project will move forward, Givens said, “There is a lot of strict criteria on the development.”

The criteria includes an Oct. 1 deadline for Motown to provide proof of financing for the project.

“Can they (the terms of the agreement) be renegotiated? Yes, they can, but that opens up the contract for other negotiations,” Givens said.

Asked later in the meeting about how Motown is financing the project, Givens said, “It is not traditionally financed in any way, shape or form. They are looking at a group of international investors.

“When they get the financing through, it goes to the legal firm that we hired for the review of such documents,” she said.

“There are other safeguards (in the agreement), as well,” Givens said, adding that the Chicago attorney the city has hired to assist with this project has considerable experience in this area.

She said the project would not raise the taxes of city residents, due to the fact that the city is creating a special business district and taking other steps to ensure that the operation pays for itself.

At this point, the city has not received any promises for financial assistance from the state. And that won’t come, Mayor Rick Gottman said, until the Motown group can provide proof that they have adequate financing for the project.

Givens conceded that Motown has not completed a project such as this in the past, but said the group has been working to put together a plan for something like this for about nine years. “They have built a strong network of people,” she said.

On the issue of incentives offered to Motown, Givens said the city has promised to improve the roads in the area of the project. Gottman added that those improvements also fit into the city’s other plans to develop the area near the western Interstate 70 interchange.

Givens said the city has enough water to meet Motown’s average daily capacity. At those times when it needs to fill its pool, other alternatives, including the use of an on-site storage facility or water from an entity such as Fayette Water Co., would have to be considered.

“What I like about this project,” Givens said, “is that it gives us a maximum amount of money coming in with a minimal disturbance of our way of life.

“Also, all of our businesses would benefit from this,” she said.

“For example, their hotel has only 300 rooms,” Givens said, adding that Motown plans to offer an upscale, more-expensive hotel. That means that some of the people using the sports and entertainment facility will likely use existing hotels.