Planners hit ‘pause’ on CenterPoint

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ultimately, it all came down to money.

The Suffolk Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to table the discussion of the CenterPoint development for 90 days in order to seek more funding partners for Route 58 improvements.

“We are at the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Commissioner Ross Boone said. “We have inadvertently created a problem that is colossal in nature and there’s no easy answer except one: Show me the money.”

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For more than an hour, the commission heard from CenterPoint leaders, Virginia officials and residents along Holland Road about the intermodal center proposed for the city.

CenterPoint had its supporters in attendance.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade David Smith told the commission he “welcome(d) the opportunity to support this project,” adding, “We must do all we possibly can” to make CenterPoint a reality in Suffolk.

Tom Capozzi, senior managing director of marketing for the Virginia Port Authority, echoed those sentiments, calling CenterPoint a “world-class developer” and saying the authority will “do anything we can to make it move forward.”

The company’s proposed warehousing and distribution center would help handle the growing amount of container traffic headed to and from the ports in Hampton Roads.

But not everyone in attendance was a fan of what the $325 million, 900-acre development would mean for the city.

Debra Hill was one of several residents who spoke against the project. Hill, a resident of Deer Path Road, said she had a number of concerns about the project, including noise pollution and increased train traffic.

“This will literally be in my backyard,” she said, “…and I don’t think anyone wants to be next to this.”

“It seems we are solving the problem by increasing the problem.”

James Thorsen, executive director of facilities and planning, spoke to the commission on behalf of the Suffolk Public School System. But he said he classified the system neither as a proponent nor opponent of the proposed project.

“We’re Switzerland – diplomatically neutral,” he said. Thorsen said the school system’s concern is the safety of students on Kenyon and Holland roads at the beginning and end of the school day — 7:15 to 8:15 a.m. and 2 to 2:45 p.m.

“We would hope an arrangement could be reached,” regarding the timing of shift changes at the shipping center, he said.

While air quality, noise pollution and property values were all referenced during the discussion, the biggest obstacle in front of the Planning Commission was Route 58.

“It’s counterproductive for the city of Suffolk to approve anything else before we get this traffic solved,” Commissioner Alvin Copeland said.

As one of the 14 proffers to the city in exchange for approving the rezoning, CenterPoint executives have offered $3.46 million to help the city widen Holland Road to six lanes – a project the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission priced at more than $90 million. The city has allocated about $1 million to the road project.

Local residents pointed out that there’s a big difference in those numbers.

Richard Wellons, a resident of Sleepy Point Way, said the city needs to do something about Route 58, because it’s a hazard to drivers. He then said it was going to take more than the money from CenterPoint to make it happen.

“The $4 million sounds generous, but where’s the other money going to come from?” he asked.

Commissioner Ronnie Rountree acknowledged the project’s potential for the city, and the good it could do for economic development. But he said the city needs help to make it happen.

“It’s a great project, I don’t want to lose it,” Rountree said. “Words are good and they’re pretty, but we’re going to need some relief.”

Boone moved that the discussion be tabled for up to 90 days so that funding from the state and federal level can be further explored as well as the possibility of more private/public partnerships.

The commission approved the motion by a vote of 13-0.