January 22, 2003

Forty terra cotta tiles, which have gone virtually unnoticed for more than 10 years, apparently are all that stand in the way of consummating a deal involving the state's largest economic development investment. It will be up to the county Historic Review Board to determine if they are to become a roadblock.

The penultimate hurdle was cleared with plenty of room to spare on Jan. 21 when a panel headed by a ranking member of the governor's cabinet convinced attenders at a meeting of the Fox Point Association to vote, by an unanimous show of hands, to endorse the project and urge the review board not to block or delay it.

"Investments this size don't come along every day," Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward told the meeting. He was referring to the $400 million to $500 million that Chicago-based Bank One Corp. has said it is willing to spend to build and equip a pair of communications and data-processing

centers on vacant land it owns in the Bear area and the long abandoned city-owned Delaware Oldsmobile showroom and automotive repair shop site on Governor Printz Boulevard just north of Wilmington, which the bank has agreed to purchase.

The rub is that the deal, evidently in the works for six months

Attenders at a Fox Point Association meeting vote to endorse Bank One's acquisition of the former Delaware Oldsmobile site. No hands went up in opposition.

but not publicly disclosed until Jan. 15, comes with a firm and looming deadline. Hayward and Donald Isken, Bank One's local lawyer, said the bank has to be given a clear track on which to proceed by the review board when it next convenes on Feb. 12. The board will be asked that evening to approve issuance of a county demolition permit to clear the Delaware Olds property.

"If I can't tell the senior vice president I report to that night or the first thing the next morning that I have the demolition permit in hand, he will say, 'Thank you for the good work you have done in the past six months, but we can't wait any longer'," Isken said.

He said the county Department of Land Use already has approved preliminary development plans for the data centers. Both properties are appropriately zoned and Bank One will not seek any variances from the Unified Development Code for the project, he said.

When a petition involves a structure 50 or more years old,

These decorative tiles surrounding the entrance to the former Delaware Olds showroom would be preserved.

the review board has the authority to delay a permit for up to nine months while it, preservation interests and members of the general public decide whether the property in question has historical significance and is worth keeping. The Delaware Olds building was built in 1949. The automobile dealer went out of business in 1992.

If the board orders a delay in this case, Hayward said, Bank One will simply walk away from the Delaware deal and take up consideration of offers received from other states and communities.

State representative David Ennis and New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner both endorsed

Husband to head
Fox Point Assn.

 Jonathan Husband was elected president of the Fox Point Association, an umbrella civic organization in the Edgemoor-Bellerfonte area.

He succeeds Christopher Koyste.

Husband, a New Castle County government employee, said his job did not involve a conflict of interest because, as a merit system employee, he is not subject to pressure by the county administration.

Bob Weldon was elected vice president.

 the project at the Fox Point meeting. John Cartier, who chairs the association's preservation committee, said there is potential of Bank One's project inspiring other investment in the Edgemoor area. "We can work with the bank and come out ahead for everybody concerned." he said.

Weiner said, however, that the review board does not have the authority to weigh preservation against economic benefit but must base its actions on historic value.

It apparently has been generally agreed that the Delaware Olds building has no intrinsic value but the 40 tiles on its façade do. They are art-deco depictions of tools used a half century and more ago in the automotive industry.

The tiles are removable, but the bank does not want to incorporate them into its new building because security considerations will require that the public not have access to the site. It has agreed, however, to sell them to Delaware Department of Transportation for $1. Hayward said DelDOT will  safely store them until the community finds a public use for them -- perhaps

 as a display or on a building that will be part of future development of Fox Point State Park.

While Hayward said that the economic development payoff will involve skilled construction jobs, about 50 high-paying jobs in each of the data centers and payment of future state and county taxes, he indicated that the underlying incentive for making the deal happen is retaining the local jobs of the former First U.S.A. bank, which has been acquired by Bank One.

Referring to the Financial Center Development Act of the early 1980s, which lured banks and in particular their credit card operations to Delaware, he said that both the federal government and other states have liberalized banking laws to the point that Delaware "no longer has our monopoly." As a result, he said, "we can't say that, because [a financial] institution is here, it is going to stay here."

On the other hand, he said, an investment of the size Bank One is contemplating is clearly a long-term commitment to a Delaware presence. "They're not going to spend that much money and give it up in five years," he said. Moreover, it is likely to be augmented by job- and revenue-producing growth in its other operations.

Hayward said it was an effort to preserve First U.S.A.'s Delaware assets which motivated Governor Ruth Ann Minner and himself to visit Bank One's corporate offices in Chicago last August. The governor and the banking company's chairman and  chief executive, Jamie Dimon "immediately hit it off and struck up a friendship," Hayward said. That and satisfaction with Delaware's labor force and business climate put the state at the top of the short list as the place to put the data centers.

Isken described the data center operations as the "brains of the bank." Because it is "absolutely essential" that the computer and communications system function continuously and "without a hiccup," the two centers will be redundant mirror-image duplicates. Hayward said that their locations, about 20 miles apart, permit them to work in tandem without their being put at simultaneous risk by a natural or other disaster. The functions that the centers will perform are now being handled at several locations by I.B.M. Corp., which has served notice that it will not renew the contract when it expires around the end of 2004.

Other than an agreement for the state to buy some of Bank One's surplus land at the Bear site, which originally was to accommodate a First U.S.A. expansion, for a park and open space and to jointly market the rest of the surplus property, there has been no indication in information made public or at the Fox Point meeting that the state has put up any economic development incentives.

That is not to say the pending deal does not involve a bit of horse-trading.

Hayward told the meeting that the Minner administration is willing to preserve the $9.8 million in capital funds previously earmarked for an aquatics center at Bellevue despite a plan to ask the General Assembly to reconsider previously committed but unspent capital-investment authorizations in light of the state's budget problems. The center is a long-pending priority for both Representative Ennis and the Fox Point Association.

More influential in the outcome of the vote at the meeting was Hayward's stopping just shy of pledging support for the effort of an area group to block a proposal to locate a Seven-Eleven gasoline station and convenience store on Penny Hill. Some members of that group said they had come to the Fox Point meeting with the understanding that that controversy would be on the agenda since it involves historic preservation of the Weldin House, which is located on the property and would have to be demolished to make room for the Seven-Eleven outlet. One member suggested that Bank One might by the house as part of a trade-off for community support.

Hayward did not go in that direction, but noted that Seven-Eleven also would have to acquire part of the state-owned right-of-way along Lore Avenue for its project to go through. "There is only one man who can sell them a [roadway] right-of-way and that happens to be me," he said.

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