By Joshua Winata
Killeen Daily Herald
With President Bush's veto of the bill authorizing a land exchange between Copperas Cove and Fort Hood, the Copperas Cove Economic Development Corp. must wait another month to move forward with the development of a new 1.15-million-square-foot retail center.
"We were surprised. It delays the process we need to go through by a month or so," CCEDC Executive Director Jerry Conner said. "Everything's done that needs to be done except for the president signing the bill."
Following congressional approval of the 2008 defense authorization bill on Dec. 14, Bush vetoed the legislation Dec. 28 because of a last-minute dispute over a provision that could freeze Iraqi assets in the United States in American lawsuits, which could hinder reconstruction efforts, the White House said.
The bill, which authorizes spending for national defense and military programs, also contains language permitting Fort Hood to convey up to 200 acres of land on the east end of Copperas Cove "for the purpose of permitting the City to improve arterial transportation routes in the community."
For Copperas Cove, the veto means more waiting to complete development projects relying on the land exchange, including the retail center proposed by Austin-based development company First Advisors Inc.
"It's simply another delay, but as far as the overall timeline, as long as they take care of this in the month of January as (the president) indicates he wants to do, then I shouldn't think it would make any difference," said Gary Davis, president of First Advisors.
The CCEDC received a status update on the retail center from Davis during its Dec. 20 board meeting under the expectation that the president would approve the bill. At the time, Davis was optimistic about the timing of the project.
"I would have preferred to proceed sooner than it has, but as it turns out, the timing now – having taken three years to get to this point – is really not bad at all," Davis said. "By the time we get under way with construction and all, I think any concerns people have about the performance of the economy and the credit markets will be past us and back on the upswing again."
Davis' involvement in the project began in December 2004 when he approached the CCEDC with a challenge.
"I met with some of the board members and explained to them that if Copperas Cove was ever going to have an opportunity to experience any retail growth, they had to have a suitable location and informed them that there really wasn't a suitable location that existed for a project of any significant scope and size," Davis said.
Through negotiations with Fort Hood and the Texas Department of Transportation, Copperas Cove was able to carve out a 5.5-million-square-foot plot of land. TxDOT agreed to shift its proposed $58 million southwest reliever route eastward, opening up the area for retail development.
If the bill is approved in January, as projected by White House officials, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can begin surveys, appraisals and environmental studies on the property required before the land exchange can close.
Davis said that he expects the engineering work to be completed by this summer and hopes to acquire the land for the shopping center within a year.
First Advisors has signed an option contract with the CCEDC on the site and has been working to sign tentative contracts with several major midscale retailers, including department stores, wholesale clubs, home improvement, sporting goods and grocery stores.
"The developer needs to be able to go out to retailers and say, 'The president has signed over the property.' He can't do that yet," Conner said. "A retailer's not going to put their signature on the dotted line until they know the developer has access to the property."
Davis said he anticipates the first phase of the multi-phased retail center project to be completed by the beginning of 2011 as long as the land exchange is authorized within the month.
"Based on the president's remarks, it appears that he's very hopeful of working out the problem language in the bill he objected to as he returns from the holidays and getting this bill in such a form that he's willing to sign it. Assuming that to be the case, then I should think it would be taken care of in relatively short order," Davis said. "Were it to be something that were to drag out and not get resolved until literally a year from now, obviously the passage of time always has an effect on projects."
The delay caused by the veto should have no impact on the current timeline for the reliever route through southwest Copperas Cove, TxDOT spokesman Ken Roberts said. The highway project is still in the planning stages, with construction projected to begin in 2009.
Development in the eastern end of the city is poised to explode in the upcoming years. Last year, construction was completed on Comfort Suites, which added 70 new rooms to the city, and a Days Inn with an additional 68 rooms is scheduled for completion within a few months, both on the east side of Copperas Cove.
Austin-based investment company New Century Investment LLC has also expressed interest in converting the CCEDC's empty speculative building behind Wal-Mart into a 65,000-square-foot entertainment venue that will include a 16-lane bowling alley, a 12-screen movie theater, a sports bar, concession areas, a major video arcade and party rooms. According to CCEDC officials, the company is still working on obtaining funding for the project and expects to close on the deal early this year.
Contact Joshua Winata at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 547-6481