Lake Norman & Mooresville

Jeter defends backing Discovery Place Kids

Charles Jeter says he understands he is the man in the middle, but he's sticking by his decision.

The Huntersville town commissioner said last week that he would vote to keep the controversial Discovery Place Kids project alive. Town commissioners plan to vote Oct. 6 on whether the town should back out of the $18.7 million project. Two of the five commissioners have said they would back out, and two have said they wanted to keep the project, making Jeter the swing vote.

“I've looked at the exit ramps for this project, and they don't exist without creating more fiscal damage to the town,” Jeter said.

Commissioner Brian Sisson, one of the opposing votes, said he doesn't like the terms of the lease, which only requires the developer, Norcom, to pay $1 per year. He said any proposed government project also costs more than initial estimates.

“I'm not opposed to the concept of Discovery Place Kids,” he said. “But you look at local projects such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Whitewater Center, and the aquatic center in Huntersville. All of those are a lot more than what people thought at first. I just don't think government should get involved in a project like this.”

Sisson and other commissioners are expected to vote Oct. 6 on whether to kill the project based on a loophole in the lease agreement. A clause in the contract requires “significant progress” to the proposed site of the project, at Gilead Road and N.C. 115, by Oct. 1. No construction has started because of land-swap issues.

The legal ramifications of such a move could create controversy. Commissioner Ron Julian said he still supports Discovery Place Kids, but said he was advised by town officials not to comment further. Lucas could not be reached for comment last week.

Jeter said backing out would also threaten the town's bond rating, and that alone would create more additional cost that could outweigh the benefit of stopping the project.

“In my mind, this is not even debatable,” he said. “Town residents are better off fiscally now if we keep it going. They might have been better off by Huntersville not getting involved at all initially, but that is not the question before me. That decision was made by previous boards. But the numbers bear out that the correct decision is to let it play out now.”

The Huntersville learning center would open in the next three to five years. It is intended to prepare young children for school and to teach them about nature, science and other cultures. The project would also include office space for the town and 300 parking spaces.

Sisson and Lucas have said they oppose the project because they want the $18.7 million to go to other needs, such as more roads. But Jeter argued that the project isn't undercutting those needs, because the Discovery Place Kids project will get 60 percent or more of its funding through the town's hotel and prepared food taxes. Those taxes can't be used for road improvements, only for tourist-related functions.

“In essence, the taxpayers are spending $7.5 million to get a $20 million impact,” Jeter said.

Jeter said he has received dozens of e-mails about the project. While he said those e-mails are split on the project, he believes going forward is the best move.

“I don't think anyone has done the amount of research I have,” he said. “It's time to put this behind us.”