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GO Zone Act Wraps Up Successfully

DEC 28, 2011 8:12pm ET
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BRADENTON, Fla. — The one-year extension of the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act expires Saturday, ending the six-year period that Congress gave three Gulf Coast states to issue more than $15 billion of so-called GO Zone bonds.

As the program winds down, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama report successful efforts in selling most of their authorizations for the purpose intended by Congress: to stimulate economic recovery following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The qualified tax-exempt, private-activity bonds originally were required to be sold by Dec. 31, 2010. However, a large amount of capacity remained unused in 2010 due to the market crisis that began in late 2007 and the subsequent recession.

Congress recognized the difficulty and extended the program through 2011 at the request of many Gulf state officials. The extra year helped issuers move many projects toward completion.

A mere $181 of the $7.84 billion of bonds allocated to hardest-hit Louisiana is expected to remain unsold at the end of this year, according to Whit Kling, director of the State Bond Commission.

About $70 million of GO Zone bonds will not be sold from Mississippi’s $4.92 billion allocation, while only $23,000 will remain unused from the $2.42 billion given to Alabama, officials in those states said.

The one-year extension to sell GO Zone bonds through 2011 helped ensure that the program wouldn’t end while Louisiana had a backlog of unused capacity, Kling said. “The extra year allowed sufficient time to provide for a virtual 100% utilization of the provided allocation,” he noted.

Louisiana could have accommodated more GO Zone bonds than the state had to give, he said.

“Based on the filing reports provided by the issuers and beneficiaries, all the bonds will have been issued by Dec. 31,” Kling said. “There are qualified entities and projects still desiring allocation capacity.”

The tax-exempt bonds provided companies looking to establish or expand operations in Louisiana a lower-cost mechanism for capital borrowing, according to Kling, who cited the decision by Nucor Corp. to build a $3.4 billion iron and steel project in St. James Parish as an example of economic development primed by GO Zone bonds.

“The state was able to leverage direct state support of $30 million, specific tax support of another $30 million, and a $600 million allocation of GO Zone bonds to provide enough of an incentive for the company to locate here in Louisiana,” he said.

In March, Nucor broke ground on its $750 million facility, which is expected to require about 500 construction workers.

When the first phase of Nucor’s plant opens, 150 permanent jobs will be created with workers earning an average salary of $75,000, plus benefits.

With expansion phases, the work force could grow to more than 1,000, company officials said.

“At a time when job creation is vital to our nation’s economic success, we need more capital investments like this one that are the result of the public and private sectors working together,” chief executive officer Dan DiMicco said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

St. James Parish priced the $600 million of variable-rate bonds for Nucor in November 2010.

Mississippi officials also said the GO Zone program was successful.

The Mississippi Development Authority oversaw implementation of the program after allocations were granted by Gov. Haley Barbour.

“The GO Zone bond program has been very successful, allowing a large number of capital projects to create thousands of jobs at no cost to taxpayers,” said Laura Hipp, Barbour’s spokeswoman. “The program played an important role in helping the Gulf Coast and other parts of Mississippi recover from Hurricane Katrina.”

Hipp said the extra year Congress granted to sell the bonds helped a number of projects continue through the process.

A similar situation played out in Alabama.

“The demand was immense,” said state deputy finance director Clinton Carter. “We had to turn away projects at the end.”

Without the GO Zone program, the state’s recovery from the recession would have been much worse, he said.

“We think generally speaking, the program itself was an overwhelming success,” Carter said. “Had it not been for GO Zone, a lot of those [hurricane-damaged] areas would have really struggled.”

Alabama’s bonds were awarded to a wide range of projects, including those of ship builders, paper manufacturers, utility companies, downtown redevelopment authorities, metal companies, a port authority, an asphalt company, an aerospace engineering firm, and manufacturers.

“We had lot of really, really solid projects with Fortune 500 companies down to Fortune 10,000 companies that made the best use of the bond allocation,” Carter said.

However, he added, “there definitely were some horrible ideas that were pitched that were generally not worthy of taxpayer-subsidized funding.” Those included several theme-park entertainment complexes and projects that could not develop strong business plans.

Carter said the state had a comprehensive review process for each GO Zone bond request, and heavily weighed those projects that provided jobs in needed areas.

The extra year to sell the bonds gave Alabama time to approve about 30% of its allocation.

“Without question, it gave us time to look into projects more thoroughly,” he said. “It was a great program for us.”

Carter said the state supports a proposal for a similar program to help areas affected by devastating tornadoes this year. Tornadoes and severe storms killed more than 250 people in the state on April 27, according to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

Two Alabama lawmakers have filed bills pending in Congress proposing a plan modeled after the GO Zone legislation that would offer relief, including bonds, to states devastated by tornadoes and floods earlier this year.

In addition to the implementation of the Hurricane Katrina-related GO Zone program, the Louisiana Bond Commission has awarded, and issuers have sold, $379.4 million of additional GO Zone bonds that were allocated to the state following Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Only $4.5 million of the bonding capacity related to Ike is left. Those bonds must be sold by the end of 2012.

The disaster bond programs will live on through refundings.

On Dec. 23, the Internal Revenue Service issued a notice allowing the states to current refund GO Zone and other disaster bonds on a tax-exempt basis after the programs expire.

Kling said the GO Zone bond program has been so successful that similar bonds would be a valuable component to disaster recovery efforts in the future.

Martin Walke, vice president for economic development at the Louisiana Public Facilities Authority, agreed.

The LPFA issued $1.18 billion of GO Zone bonds on behalf of a variety of beneficiaries, with $235 million sold in the grace year of 2011.

Financing was provided for many different kinds of projects, including office buildings, movie studios, health care facilities, biofuel production facilities, and colleges.

“It’s been a tremendous stimulus for Louisiana and a great model for economic recovery efforts after any future disaster,” Walke said. “This program has been very, very helpful as Louisiana has worked to recover from the hurricanes.”

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