OAKHURST – The Oakhurst Community Center was packed Tuesday evening as residents turned out for a public hearing on the proposed 50 percent Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) incentive for a Conference Center and Team Building Facility planned near the Hounds Tooth Inn on the north end of Oakhurst.
The meeting was an “On the Road” regular meeting of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, and most who attended were there to hear about the proposed project, and the presentation by developer Gautam Patel of Yosemite Resorts, LLC.
After hearing from Patel and from the public, the Board voted unanimously to approve the 50 percent TOT incentive to the developers and allow the project to move forward.
The incentive won’t kick in unless and until the project is completed, within a four-year window, and its valuation is at least $20 million.
Melanie Barker of the Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce, Theresa Wilson of the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce, and Bobby Kahn of the Madera County Economic Development Commission all spoke in favor of the project.
Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite/Madera County, told the Board that during her tenure in sales and marketing at The Pines Resort, she put forth her best efforts to get Silicon Valley companies to hold their events in the mountain area, but there wasn’t a facility equipped to handle their needs.
“This area has needed a conference center for many years,” she said. “We want the Oakhurst area to be a destination, not a pass-through.”
“The local Chambers have been working for years to find a way to generate business year-round,” said Kahn. “When you go to a conference, you don’t just stay inside the hotel. You get out and walk around, and generate business for others.”
Ten members of the public addressed the Board, and some raised questions about water, sewer, traffic issues and fire concerns, but only one expressed direct opposition to the project, saying he was objecting on principle and that it was unfair to favor one business over another.
Perhaps the most surprising comments of all came from Mark Choe, whose family bought The Pines Resort on Bass Lake in 2010. After meeting with Patel, Choe seemed to adopt the attitude that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“My family has invested everything we have into the property, and perhaps we have the most to lose,” said Choe. “We will likely lose some weddings, some groups, some meetings. And we may suffer from a shortage of skilled labor due to the new facility. But after sitting down with family and our staff, we are in favor of the project and the tax rebate.”
Choe told the Board that aside from Yosemite, Bass Lake is the main attraction and the crown jewel in Madera County, and it benefits everyone to bring in new money and new business.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” he told the Board. “And if you don’t give this incentive, a different county will. Even though we will probably take the most impact, we are in favor of the County taking this action. It’s good for the community and good for business.”
He asked that the Board consider other fair and equitable opportunities for businesses such as The Pines Resort in the future as they grow and expand and are “wanting to do something new.”
After the public hearing was closed, the Board members voice their opinions and all pointed out that the investors are putting their own money on the line and there was no money coming from the County, only new revenue through TOT, TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) tax, property tax and sales tax.
“This projects stands or falls on its own,” said District 2 Supervisor Dave Rogers. “The County has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. There is literally no risk to the County and the purpose of TOT is economic development. That’s exactly what this project is.”
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose district includes Oakhurst, noted that the County has given incentives to other projects, and even offered them to Amazon in a bid to entice the company to build their new distribution center in Madera County.
“Fresno won that one because they could offer more incentives,” said Wheeler. “I was really hesitant about this project in the beginning, but after six months of meeting with the developers and the Chambers and Bobby Kahn, this fits perfectly into our ‘Work, Play, Live’ vision for the county.”
District 4 Supervisor Max Rodriguez said that Madera County has always been on the slow side of growth, but after listening to both sides, he was convinced.
“This will bring in revenue, and an opportunity for our young people who can grow into these jobs,” said Rodriguez. “Also, some folks who come for a meeting will decide to live up here. That will bring good people into the county.”
District 1 Supervisor Brett Frazier said that he was heartened by the discourse between Patel and the Choe’s, and that the most important part of Patel’s presentation was the word “We.”
“He’s not some outsider coming in telling us how we should do things,” said Frazier. “He is from here, and his family lives here. They own businesses here. This county is constantly in competition to bring in something no one else has; something that is an opportunity for our children so they will have a place to work without leaving the area.”
Matt Treber, Director of Community and Economic Development for Madera County, reiterated that there are strict requirements for the incentive to happen. The developers must navigate the permit process and meet building codes and restrictions. They must also adhere to the timeline laid out in the agreement with the County and if they fail on any of those steps, there will be no TOT incentive.
“There is no risk to the general fund,” said Treber. “This is all new tax money, and for the developers – however successful they are is what they get.”
The project is estimated to generate nearly $3.6 million for schools, $3.9 million for Visit Yosemite/Madera County to promote the county and generate tourist dollars, and $10.8 million in discretionary income to the County through TOT, sales tax and property taxes over the term of the agreement. It will also pull in nearly $200,000 in impact fees, and create at least 80 new permanent jobs.
Patel closed his remarks by addressing concerns about the water, sewer, traffic and fire issues. He pointed out that the property as it sits today, is actually more of a fire hazard than it will be once it is built out with fuel breaks, pressurized water systems and landscaping.
“I’ve talked to the Fire Marshal, and this will be the safest building in Oakhurst,” he said.
He also said the property will have its own private water system and will invest about $600,000 into a sewer treatment plant with a gray water system that will deliver water back to the property to irrigate the landscaping.
Developers plan to construct modular buildings off-site so that the work on the infrastructure of the site itself can proceed at the same time and speed up the process.
Patel says they are in talks with Caltrans and will do whatever is asked of them in regard to dedicated turn lanes or other requirements to mitigate possible traffic hazards.
Finally, he addressed the notion that this is unfair to one business and that the others lose.
“Looking at this as though there are winners and losers is a very simplistic approach,” said Patel. “It is the job of the decision makers to create good policy so that this is a win/win situation in which everyone can benefit.”
For details of the project, click here.