TIFFIN– The Bella Sala (which translates to “beautiful room”) reception and banquet facility opened on Jasper Avenue in Tiffin in 2010 and has since become a popular venue for weddings, fundraisers and corporate events. Bella Sala owners Melissa Fontanini and Lyndsie Schnoor brought two not-so-beautiful issues to the Tiffin City Council at its Wednesday, Sept. 26, council meeting.
Citing a misunderstanding, Fontanini reminded the council of the history of Bella Sala’s two-year tax abatement.
“It was by no means given to us,” Fontanini said, explaining that they traded 17 acres of land to the city for its trail project. “It seems to always be brought back to our attention that we’re by some means lucky to have gotten two years tax free. We did not.” She called the transaction a fair exchange” and noted the abatement has expired.
Their second issue concerned Jasper Avenue, the gravel road which leads to Bella Sala. Fontanini said the facility has become established for weddings, but “what is really going to make Bella Sala is corporate business,” she said. “We’re to the point where corporations won’t book with us because we’re on a gravel road.” Jasper Avenue is important to the city and Bella Sala, she added, “but we can’t grow if we can’t change what is in front of Bella Sala.”
“Half the reason we even purchased that land, is that it was promised to us at one point in time that the road was going to be completed,” Schnoor said. “At the time it was promised, it was said it wasn’t going to be more than two years.” Schnoor stressed the request for paving wasn’t just for their business, saying that Bella Sala has brought additional business traffic to Tiffin. Weddings will always be big for Bella Sala (Schnoor said they’re booked through 2014), but corporate contracts are bigger. Schnoor reiterated corporate accounts have declined to book, claiming the gravel road was the reason.
“Unfortunately, people are not going to drive their Mercedes down a gravel road. They look at us and ask us why we have such a beautiful facility, but why we haven’t taken the steps and measures to have a paved road.” Schnoor added, “(Bella Sala) does not have a problem purchasing our portion of a paved road if we are given that back in an extended abatement.” She said it’s a proposal that had been brought to the council previously.
Roy Browning, also with Bella Sala, offered his take on the situation. “You got a heck of a deal (on the 17 acres for the trails).” He noted the University of Iowa is attempting to sell some timberland across the street from Bella Sala and compared their asking price to the abatement deal.
“We were told, at the time, this thing would be paved. They hoped in the first year and for sure in the second. They had it all planned,” Browning said, referring to notes he’d taken during the initial discussions with the city about locating the business on Jasper Avenue. “We didn’t get a guarantee, but I felt like we got a good handshake,” he said.
Browning said other businesses in the area, such as Throttle Down and Casey’s, benefit from the throngs of people coming to and leaving Bella Sala events. “It needs to be done,” Browning said.
Mike Ward, who does maintenance and mowing for the facility, said dust from the gravel is a concern and customers’ biggest complaint. “We do spray it. We put down oil and tar, but that only lasts for a few days,” said Ward. He said the gravel hinders Bella Sala from “being the elite business that we’re trying to be, and bringing business to Tiffin.” Ward also runs a limousine service in connection with the facility. “People always ask me why my $100,000 limo is dirty, so it’s hurting my business too.”
“Yes we have an abatement, but we actually paid a portion of our taxes last year, around $27,000,” Schnoor said. “The cost to pave our portion is roughly $33,000 so essentially, what we paid in taxes is almost equal to that.” Schnoor suggested giving the city $33,000 in cash to pave the road, then having the abatement extended for an additional three years. “Schnoor then revised her estimate. “It’s going to be more like $25-26,000, so we have paid in taxes already what it’s going to cost us.”
Councilman Mike Ryan added up the number of weddings, number of participants and a rough average of what they might spend in Tiffin. “That’s a lot of economic activity,” he said. “I hear you. I empathize. I’m in favor of getting something done.” Ryan said he wasn’t aware of the 17 acres given to the city before, which he said, “rested well on these ears. Regardless of whatever promises were made or not made, we have a situation now where we have a thriving business and a crap road to get to it.”
Councilwoman Peggy Upton took the conversation in a different direction. Roberts Ferry Road is also a “crap road,” she said, used by half the town every day, and is unsafe for the many school kids who have to cross it.
“How do you convince me– and believe me I think we should have a paved road out by Bella Sala, I really do– but how do you convince me that’s more of a priority than Roberts Ferry?” Upton asked. When Schnoor said gravel dust made Japser Avenue unsafe for pedestrians, Upton said both needed work, but it’s a matter of prioritizing and spending money as wisely as possible.
Schnoor repeated their offer to pay for their portion, to ease the pain in return for a refund. “Tell us what we need to make it happen and we’ll make it happen,” Schnoor said. “We’ll front it, just refund it somewhere else.”
“That road out there has been TIF-ed (Tax Increment Financing), said Tiffin Mayor Steve Berner, “so TIF funds can be used for it as well.” Berner noted he and Tiffin City Administrator Michon Jackson would work on a way to structure and finance a paving project, what he deemed a one-week job, per the LL Pelling Company. The city has no agreement with the company to do the work, but Berner has had conversations with them to explore options. He also talked with City Engineer Doug Frederick, who concluded that a 5-inch asphalt overlay would last up to 15 years, saving time and money on gravel maintenance by city crews and equipment. Using asphalt would also be less expensive than full urbanization with concrete including curb and gutter work, and would be more durable than chip-seal coating the road.
Royce Phillips, former Tiffin mayor and current city council candidate, offered a differing view of the circumstances and alleged promises when contacted for comments the day after the meeting.
“What I told them (Bella Salla owners) was that I would try very hard to have the road paved ‘in the next two or three years.’ I emphasized it depended on me finding the money, especially with so many urgent projects.”
Phillips had applied to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for money for both Jasper Avenue and Roberts Ferry Road. Both projects were denied MPO funding during Phillips’ tenure, as the projects did not score enough points on the committee’s rating system.
Phillips also recalled the deal on the 17 acres differently.
“I believe the original parcel was 20 acres. As I recall, the city received 12-plus acres in return for two years of tax abatements.” Phillips calculated the $27,000 in taxes paid by Bella Sala means the City of Tiffin “essentially paid roughly $54,000 for those 12 acres, which is pretty close to market price. They asked for three years (of abatement). I countered with one, then they countered again with two, which the council accepted.”
At this time, there is no official cost estimate or any timeline for a paving project. As the discussion was not on the regular agenda, no council action could be taken.