Habitat for Humanity ReStore Solar Project on Hold after City Council Tables Agreement
The Main Point: Plans for Habitat for Humanity McLean County to add a solar panel array to its newly renovated ReStore were put on hold last week when City Council members tabled an economic incentive agreement to help Habitat pay for the project.
Fine Print: The agreement would award Habitat $135,000 in sales tax rebates, covering the full cost to buy and install the solar panel array from StraightUp Solar. Based on ReStore sales projections, City staff estimated it would take about 5-6 years for the incentive to be fully paid.
Rewind: Habitat McLean County has been operating in Bloomington since 1985, opening the ReStore at 1402 W. Washington Street in 2009. Habitat launched its nearly $1M ReStore Renewal project in late 2016, including an expansion of retail space from 8,000 sq. ft. to 20,000 sq. ft. The project also adds a concrete parking lot on top of the unpaved area where ReStore visitors currently park.
A Win-Win Situation?
City staff and Habitat representatives said the agreement would ultimately benefit the City by helping Habitat put the money saved from reduced overhead costs toward its home building and repair programs.
Former Habitat McLean County Executive Director Stan Geison said, of the six homes the agency builds in an average year in McLean County, five are built in Bloomington. “One-hundred percent of the money we should be able to save [from the solar panel array] is ready to go into our program to build homes for people in need of affordable housing.”
Austin Grammer, the City’s Economic Development Coordinator, explained helping Habitat increase homebuilding would translate to additional property tax revenue for the City and other taxing bodies. Staff also expect the expanded ReStore to generate additional sales tax revenues for the City.
“Our proposal to the City Council was regarding trying to run the majority of energy in that project off of solar power--we think that’s being good stewards,” said current Habitat McLean County Executive Director Jim Walters. “We think that’s the direction the City wants to go and encourages, so that’s kind of how we came up with the proposal in the first place.”
Council Members Not So Sure
While council members acknowledged the work Habitat does to help area families, most were hesitant to support the agreement, voting 6-2 to revisit the issue in 60 days.
Alderman Amelia Buragas said the agreement would act as a grant for renewable energy rather than the intended economic development incentive.
“I would prefer if [incentivizing renewable energy] is something we as a community want to talk about, then we should have that separate conversation and come up with a really clear set of parameters for how we would consider those requests.”
Buragas questioned the lack of clear outcomes of the project, such as additional homes built and property tax revenues generated, usually included in economic incentive applications.
Grammer responded that City staff felt it would be “onerous” to hold Habitat to such specific metrics, as its homebuilding activity varies from year to year, depending on the availability of land and qualified applicants.
Although she and Alderman Scott Black voted against the proposal, tabling the agreement, Alderman Diana Hauman worried the agreement could set an unreasonable precedent for future applicants.
“We cannot be all things to all people, especially right now when we’re trying to balance this budget,” Hauman said.
Black said while he shared many of his cohorts’ concerns, he ultimately supported the agreement as a way to help Habitat invest over $1M into Bloomington’s West Side with its ReStore expansion. Still, Black cautioned against incentivizing too much retail development in the future.
“I really want our economic development to focus on our assets like our airport, our interstate, our rail. The more we do with these sorts of projects with an eye on retail, the more we shoot ourselves in the foot based on this national trend [of declining retail sales].”
Over the next 60 days, Council members will continue to discuss next steps with City staff and Habitat representatives.
“We respect the City Council’s decision on tabling the measure--it’s certainly better than them saying no straight out,” said Walters. “We got a lot of good feedback from many of the [council] members on the problems with our proposal. We’re going to take this time to utilize [the feedback] and see if we can build a better proposal to bring back to them.”
Walters said Habitat could also decide to withdraw its proposal altogether.
While the solar component is on hold, the rest of the ReStore Renewal project is still on schedule. Habitat will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the McLean County Chamber of Commerce May 17, with the ReStore’s Grand Reopening set for June 2.