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Residents leave meeting confused

BOARDMAN — Hoping for more clarity Friday on tax breaks being sought for construction at the Southern Park Mall, some community residents left a Coffee with the Community event at the mall scratching their heads.

During the hour-long chat held in the area known as “The Hub” near the former Sears location, about 20 people asked Boardman school board members and Brian Gabbert, Southern Park Mall general manager, questions about the $30 million DeBartolo Commons project.

About two dozen people listened while some took turns asking questions.

One question involved plans to update the mall interior, and Gabbert responded that there has been “some talk” to do so, but the three things to be completed first will be lighting, flooring and restrooms. The store spaces where Work N’ Gear, Spencers and Jersey World are will be made into one large space, with those stores being relocated elsewhere in the mall in spots that are vacant, he said.

Ken and Jan Platt of Struthers decided to leave before the event ended. They planned to ask questions and better understand why Washington Prime seeks tax abatements to offset costs of $6 million. The company would fund 100 percent of its project costs up front and be reimbursed a portion over time through a series of programs, including working with the Western Reserve Port Authority to save on sales tax paid on construction materials.

Washington Prime is asking Mahoning County commissioners, Boardman Township and Boardman schools to establish a program allowing the company to keep a portion of new real estate taxes generated from the newly created property value. The company also would work with Boardman, Mahoning County and “other local partners” to put programs in place to allow Washington Prime “to impose, for a limited time, new taxes on the Southern Park Mall site, which, once collected, will be shared with the company.”

If taxing employees is part of the proposed abatement, Ken Platt said “it’s a bad precedent to start. You’re working out here, not having to pay taxes but all of a sudden you have to pay 2 percent of your wages. That’s a big bite.”

Jeff Barone, school board president, previously said an abatement will not affect Boardman schools, but would only involve new tax dollars generated within the renovated area for no more than 15 years.

As they left, the Platts said they were as perplexed as they were before the community meeting.

Jan Platt said she previously understood that county taxpayers would not have to pay for construction in any way, “but then they say, ‘we’re going to get this tax or that tax…’ That’s coming out of my pocket. No matter which way you look at it, it’s coming out of the taxpayers’ pocket,” she said, adding: “To me, it just seems confusing.”

Ken added that he feels the explanations are “very foggy.”

“It’s not cut and dry. When things aren’t cut and dry and they’re talking about money, sometimes it’s just not a good thing,” he added.

The discussion’s hosts at first didn’t want Mahoning Valley news outlets to attend.

At 7:23 a.m. Friday, four hours before the “informal” gathering was to begin, a news release was sent to local media, stating that Washington Prime Group and Southern Park Mall would not participate in interviews — and any media showing up would “be asked to leave the property.” Security monitored the event.

The Vindicator was among the outlets that questioned Washington Prime about that decision. Ultimately, reporters attended the event — but photography was not allowed.

Asked why such a ban would be announced on short notice, Kim Green, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Washington Prime Group, responded in a statement that a press event was already held Dec. 5 for media to ask questions. “No new announcements were made during the Dec. 13 event, which is why this particular event was not intended to be a press event.”

Both the Platts were concerned when several people asked Gabbert questions and were instead told that if they wrote them out on provided paper, someone would respond with an answer.

Adding to their confusion, the Platts said Friday was the first time they heard about a Joint Entertainment District. Jan is concerned about the Valley having another area for entertainment, stating the area can only afford so many.

Ken said that he would rather pay admission to events at the future DeBartolo Commons instead of the possibility of taxes.

But ultimately, the Platts want to see the project thrive.

“We all hope whatever they do is a very big success,” Ken said, with Jan adding: “You only want good for the area.”

The Boardman Board of Education will vote on the abatement 6:30 p.m. Monday at Boardman Center Intermediate School, 7410 Market St.

afox@tribtoday.com