JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The tense debate over the proposed Lot J development will take a holiday break after Jacksonville Jaguars President Mark Lamping said Tuesday it is "completely understandable" for City Council to wait until January to cast a final vote on the development deal.
Lamping's comments during a meeting of City Council members about the Lot J project aligns the development partners — Jaguars owner Shad Khan and The Cordish Companies — with the timeline mapped out over the weekend by City Council President Tommy Hazouri to take the vote in early January.
Hazouri's decision could have faced a rebellion if enough City Council members wanted to bring the legislation up for a decision this week before going on the holiday break. But with the Jaguars on board, an override won't happen.
An override would have faced a high bar requiring super-majority support by 13 of 19 council members at the regular meeting of council on Tuesday. It's not clear if the votes are there yet for sealing the deal.
Lamping said the developers had hoped the legislation would get a vote during the council's regular meeting on Tuesday, which was the original target date for the bill when council members kicked off their review in early November.
Lamping said "there is no question that these deliberations inspired constructive give-and-take that resulted in positive changes to the proposal that will benefit everyone."
"That's what is most important, and that's why the decision to take time over the holidays to review the revised documents before a vote in January is completely understandable and one we support," Lamping said in a meeting convened by council member Reggie Gaffney hours before the regular council session.
The proposed development would use up to $233 million in city investments and incentives for building a Live! entertainment district, at least 350 apartments in two mid-rise buildings, and at least 120 boutique hotel rooms on land now used as Lot J in the downtown sports complex.
City Council member Randy DeFoor said taxpayers would be making a huge investment and should be able to get $150 million returned to the city in liquidated damages if the Jaguars do not remain in Jacksonville past the current lease term that expires in 2030.
DeFoor said having that clawback "keeps everybody honest" and ensures the city won't have the liability of the expense for Lot J "wrapped around our neck" when entering into lease negotiations.
"You are asking this city for over $200 million and we're simply saying and taking you at your word that you're going to stay here in Jacksonville, and if that's the case, this should be a 'gimme' for you," DeFoor said. "It should not be a problem at all. I think it's insulting, quite frankly, that you wouldn't agree to that."
Lamping said Khan's "actions speak for themselves" in his commitment to the Jaguars "playing in Jacksonville forever."
He said that in the nine years since Khan bought the team, San Diego and St. Louis have lost their teams but Jacksonville is still an NFL city, even though the lease agreement would allow the franchise to be a "free agent" in moving without paying any financial penalty to the city.
Khan is taking a financial risk in investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements at the city-owned stadium and for downtown development, but he isn't asking for a clawback to recover his money if the city doesn't agree to upgrades at the stadium that meet NFL standards and a lease extension, said Paul Harden, attorney for the team.
"It really works both ways," Harden said.
He said if Khan wanted to move the franchise, he has had opportunities to consider it.
"Don't you think for one minute that people haven't encouraged him to do that," Harden said. "Don't think for one minute he didn't get a lot of pressure. He likes Jacksonville."
City Council member Danny Becton said his constituents do not understand why the city's cost is so high for the Lot J development, which would have a roughly 50-50 split between taxpayers and the development team for an overall price tag of $450 million to $482 million.
Becton zeroed in on a $65.5 million no-interest "breadbox loan" that is part of the city's share of the cost. After the city provides the $65.5 million, 20 percent of it would go into a trust account where that $13.1 million would be invested until it grows to $65.5 million and goes to the city as repayment.
The structure of the breadbox loan would put $52.4 million in the hands of developers so Becton said it really should be viewed as a grant.
Lamping said it's not a traditional project "because this is basically the creation of a neighborhood" in the sports complex that will create a vibrant downtown.
"This neighborhood, if it's created and it works, which we believe it can, is going to create waves and waves of benefits for the city going forward," Lamping said.
Jordan Elsbury, chief of staff for Mayor Lenny Curry, said the framework of the deal tentatively agreed to in 2019 had used a $65.5 million cash grant but that was changed during negotiations because federal tax law would have required the developers to pay a chunk of the grant to the federal government in income taxes.
He said converting it to a breadbox loan means the city's money "stays in the project" instead of going to the Internal Revenue Service and allows the city to recoup some of its expenses in the future compared to getting no return on a cash grant.
Becton said notwithstanding that change, the developer still would be getting more than $50 million in cash through the breadbox loan, an incentive that other downtown developers haven't received. Lamping said if the city's portion of the development cost went down by that amount, "the project dies."
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