Debt worries could kill center’s $5.4M revamp

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – In a move that surprised those close to the project, Lee County supervisors Tuesday wavered on the future expansion of the Renasant Center for IDEAs business incubator.
Lee County, along with the Community Development Foundation, had agreed to fund half the $5.4 million project. But concerns this week over the county’s ability to pay off that debt caused supervisors to apply the brakes.
The matter emerged during a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday when the group voted to rescind a construction contract it had awarded last month to CIG Contractors.
The Corinth-based company was among about half-dozen to bid on the project, which will double the size of the downtown business incubator.
That award was called into question recently after supervisors learned about a slight flaw in the bid process. To avoid potential legal issues, the board voted to rescind the CIG contract and start the process anew.
The board voted unanimously to rescind, but some supervisors blocked an attempt to relaunch the process. They said the county’s annual $75,000 debt repayment will burden residents and could require a tax increase.
“Are we going to be able to support our share without a tax increase?” said District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan. “My residents can’t stand a tax increase.”
Morgan and District 5 Supervisor Joe McKinney said they’ll vote against the project unless assured it won’t lead to a tax increase.
County Administrator Sean Thompson said he can guarantee no tax increase for two years but after that, it would be too speculative, he said.
Thompson agreed to prepare a detailed description of how the county plans to repay its debt. He’ll present that Feb. 24, and the supervisors are expected to vote.
CDF officials, who attended the meeting, said afterward they were caught off guard by the discussion and didn’t know supervisors were having doubts.
“It was a little bit surprising,” said CDF Chairman Chris Rogers. “We had the process started and were pleased with the bids.”
Rogers said he remains confident the county will stick with the project. If not, it could lose a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, which is paying for the other half of the project.
The expansion would add a three-story, eco-friendly facility adjacent to the existing business incubator at Main and Elizabeth streets.
Together, the two buildings would provide nearly 55,500 square feet of space to help fledgling companies launch their ventures.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.