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State grant for Empire Hotel project in question

SALISBURY — Items included in one state budget budget proposal don’t necessarily make it into another, and the Empire Hotel is proof of that.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed state budget included the Empire Hotel restoration as one of 68 local projects statewide that would receive grant money. The governor’s proposed grant would invest $26.4 million to 68 projects to spur economic development in rural areas. Communities would provide at least $1 for every $4 of state funds invested in the project.

The grant would mean $1 million for the Empire Hotel project if approved.  However, the same Empire Hotel funding is not included in the state House’s budget. And Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, said it is unlikely the project will be added to the Senate budget since the chamber plans to decrease spending. Ford is expecting the Senate budget to be unveiled later this month.

“I don’t see it being added to the Senate budget,” Ford said, adding that he isn’t saying it is not a worthy project.

Ford said Salisbury has asked for several projects to be funded, including a request that the state Department of Transportation reroute a road near Bell Tower Green.

On Friday, Downtown Salisbury Inc. Chairman Greg Shields called on Salisbury residents to contact their legislators to lobby for money for the Empire Hotel project in the House and Senate budgets, saying in a Facebook post that it is critical to downtown.

Ford said he had received one email and one phone call as of Tuesday about the Empire Hotel.

Britt Weaver, developer of the Empire Hotel, told the Post the grant could help move the project forward financially.

“This request is the single greatest thing to take this over the hump,” Weaver said.

But he said that he does not want to “put all his eggs in one basket.”

Weaver said he has been creative in funding the hotel project. At the February Power in Partnership breakfast, he said development company Black Point Investment has provided $210,000 toward the project

He also developed a a public-private partnership with the city of Salisbury for a master lease to underwrite plans for the mezzanine. Additional funding for the project, he said, will come through grants, equity loans, cost savings and economic opportunity zone funding.

The $1 million grant would give him a “ton of confidence to get it over the line.”

But Weaver said he has gotten some good financial news — interest rates are going down.

The project’s omission from the House and potential omission from the Senate versions of the budget are not the only chances for state funding. Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said there is an opportunity later on in this year’s session to ask for money for district projects — though it is unlikely to get funding for an individual project.

Warren said that, if the Empire Hotel is included in the Senate budget, he can help advocate for it in the final budget, along with Ford.

Traditionally, both bodies of the legislature pass versions of a budget and create a conference committee to resolve any differences. The governor then can sign or veto the final version passed by the legislature.

Weaver is also looking at tax incentives through Opportunity Zones, a program to encourage investment in low-income areas.

Both Warren and Ford said the project will be able to utilize the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credits. Warren is currently a primary sponsor of legislation to extend the program.

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