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Wallingford council approves hotel tax agreement

WALLINGFORD — A tax agreement approved by the Town Council will save Robert Winston, who plans to build a 139-room Hilton Garden Inn at 1181 Barnes Road, almost $400,000 in property tax payments in the seven years after the hotel is completed.

The council approved the agreement Tuesday night. A tentative agreement was reached between Winston and the council on March 18, and then the Law Department worked to draft a written agreement. The council approved the agreement by an 8-1 vote. Voting against the agreement was Town Councilor Craig Fishbein, who said he was concerned because councilors never received a copy of the hotel building plans.

“There’s no way to establish if the other side of the contract would be in compliance if we don’t have plans in front of us,” Fishbein said.

According to the agreement, the hotel must be built according to existing plans, and the hotel must remain a Hilton Garden Inn. Fishbein said he was concerned because Hilton could change its design standards in the future.

Town Attorney Gerald Farrell said the Law Department has never seen detailed drawings of the hotel plans. The Planning and Zoning Commission has not reviewed plans, either, Farrell said.

PZC approval isn’t necessary because there is no change of use. An unfinished structure on the property was being built as a hotel until a previous developer backed out of the project.

Fishbein asked that the approval be contingent on the council’s receiving plans, but other councilors weren’t as worried as Fishbein because the agreement specifies that the hotel must remain a Hilton Garden Inn.

“To me I don’t really see the significance of exactly what the plans will be,” Town Councilor John LeTourneau said. “It’s just important it’s a Hilton Garden Inn.”

“If the balance of the council doesn’t care about that provision, why is it even in the agreement?” Fishbein said.

Winston, owner of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Winston Hospitality Inc., took ownership of the unfinished hotel just over a year ago. Winston proposed several different agreements to the Town Council and Economic Development Commission. He has said lower taxes will allow him to complete the project.

Winston initially offered to pay $670,000 in taxes over the next seven years. But Town Assessor Shelby Jackson disagreed with Winston’s property appraisal and felt the hotel should be valued higher, bringing in about $1.2 million over that seven-year period. Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and the Economic Development Commission favored Jackson’s assessment.

On March 18, the council reached a compromise with Winston, who agreed to pay $818,000, based on a fixed assessment schedule in the agreement.

Fishbein said he would have voted against the agreement anyway because he is “not comfortable with this whole situation of picking winners and losers with tax dollars.”

Winston owns the property through a company called CT Wallingford. The agreement stipulates that Winston remain the managing partner of the company. According to terms of the agreement, the hotel must be completed and certified for occupation by Oct. 1, 2016, or the agreement will be terminated. The property must remain under ownership of CT Wallingford. If not, the town could end the agreement.

Winston has said the town’s approval gives him a better chance of getting state aid.

Winston is pursuing additional financial assistance from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s Small Business Express Program. Any business that plans to be operating for longer than 12 months with fewer than 100 employees is eligible for the program. Winston hopes to hire nearly 50 people. The program offers a matching grant of up to $100,000 along with loans of as much as $100,000 and $300,000. (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz

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