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Vital questions go unanswered

Tax-increment financing for a downtown revitalization project tied to Dudley Webb's CentrePointe development isn't dead, but it's on life support.

What's the chance it will survive the Urban County Council? Slim.

If it does, what's the chance it will get state approval? Probably none.

But, for now, it lives, by an 8-7 council vote.

That means council members have more time, opportunity and reason to demand answers to the many questions Lexington residents have about CentrePointe, the 35-story hotel, condo, office and retail development that could reshape downtown for generations to come.

Some council members, such as Jay McChord, think CentrePointe is a great project that will rejuvenate downtown.

"What if it goes right?" McChord asked, saying that the city could miss out on a chance to keep some tax revenues that otherwise would go to the state.

Others said it was just too early in the process to quit, since the city isn't obligating itself to anything quite yet.

"I don't see a reason to throw a rope over a limb and hang ourselves today," said Julian Beard.

But, based on other council members' comments, the TIF seems to have slim chance of success unless CentrePointe's developers are willing to provide a lot more information.

Darby Turner, the lawyer for the Webb companies, offered some new information Tuesday. He identified the builder (Bovis), the hotel operator (J.W. Marriott), a construction timetable (look for something to come out of the ground by December).

But Turner shed little new light on the biggest question of all: Where's the $200 million to build CentrePointe coming from, and is that financing real?

Turner said equity financing is secured, but he again refused to identify the source. He said a major law firm would act as trustee for the money. But then he refused to identify the law firm.

Feel better now? Seven council members didn't, and others seemed nervous.

Many questions persist: Where's the money coming from? Is there a market for the hotel, the condos and the retail space?

Sure, you might say, that is Webb's problem. But if the city starts building its own projects based on CentrePointe's anticipated success, it's our problem, too.

If the state shoots down this flawed TIF application, will it poison the well for good ones in the future?

And here are some other questions council members should ask:

■ With so little financial information available, could the city successfully sell TIF bonds without providing some sort of taxpayer guarantee to investors?

■ If public improvements are begun and CentrePointe's mysterious financing falls short, could the city be put in a position of bailing out CentrePointe to protect its own projects?

Vice Mayor Jim Gray, the CEO of a major construction company, was the first to vote against the TIF, saying that he doesn't think CentrePointe is economically viable and that he doesn't trust Webb.

Gray's bottom line: "It doesn't pass the smell test."

As long as the city continues to consider tying its fortunes to CentrePointe, other council members need to keep sniffing, too.

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