Friday’s meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners Court proved a bit out of the ordinary for two reasons. Court members traditionally meet on Mondays but pushed the date forward because commissioners were out of town attending a conference earlier in the week.
In another change of pace, the usually empty courtroom was packed courtesy of numerous residents opposed to Louis Vuitton’s plans to open a Johnson County facility, or at least opposed to Louis Vuitton setting up shop in their neck of the woods.
Louis Vuitton earlier this month purchased 256 acres near Keene at 5520 CR 316 from Wayne Z. Burkhead Jr., a Dallas doctor, and Rockin’ Z Ranch LLC.
Despite opposition from several in attendance Friday, commissioners unanimously approved the French company’s requests for tax abatements and a request to designate land the company recently purchased near Keene as a reinvestment development zone.
Commissioners tabled action on the reinvestment development zone request during their Sept. 18 meeting because of concerns raised by several residents living near the property in question and because they did not at that time know the identity of the company. The project, which had been in the works for some time, was known as Project Mustang until Louis Vuitton’s official announcement that they had purchased the property in question earlier this month.
Jim Manasco, who lives near Louis Vuitton’s planned plant site, expressed doubts about claims that commissioners were unaware, until recently, of which company was planning to move to Johnson County.
Manasco based such suspicions on a May 2 letter from Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon to Georgenes Hernandez, project manager for Project Mustang in San Dimas, California, which happens to be Louis Vuitton’s American corporate office location.
“We stand ready to facilitate the arrival of Project Mustang to our community,” Harmon’s letter reads.
In the letter, Harmon writes that Project Mustang is eligible for a 75 percent, 10-year tax abatement, which is the maximum allowed by Johnson County policy and state statute. The abatement, based on projections of $29 million a year revenues, would total about $91,900 per year.
The abatement outlined in Harmon’s letter matches the agreement commissioners approved on Friday with exception of the first year, which will be a 45 percent abatement.
Bruce Medley, an attorney representing the county, said the abatement agreement is not transferable should Louis Vuitton sell the property and said the percentage of the abatement would decrease proportionally should Louis Vuitton fail to create an agreed upon number of jobs or construct a smaller facility.
Although several residents attending Friday’s meeting oppose Louis Vuitton’s planned arrival, only three were allowed to speak during Friday’s court meeting. Three others were also allowed to speak in favor of the project.
Harmon on Thursday said that the public hearing on the matter had already been held during the court’s Sept. 18 meeting.
“But we do want to maintain good, open government,” Harmon said on Thursday. “There won’t be another public hearing [Friday] but people can still sign up for public participation as they can at every meeting. But that will be limited to six people who can each speak for three minutes each.”
Harmon, toward the beginning of Friday’s meeting, said he wanted to clarify that the public participation rules “were made a long time ago” and were not specific to the Louis Vuitton issue.
In recent weeks, many residents living near the property have questioned why the company didn’t consider Keene’s industrial park or some other area closer to major roadways and rail service. A Facebook page and community effort titled Stop Project Mustang — the code name for the project before the announcement of the company’s name — began by concerned area residents has grown in membership, said Corinna Watson, a spokeswoman for the group.
She and others have voiced concerns over pollution worries, increased traffic and the overall impact on their community. They’ve also questioned the “secretive” nature of the project, grant applications and what they label confusing and/or misleading legal notices associated with the project.
Watson, during public participation, said that while Louis Vuitton’s arrival will create jobs they will be, for the most part, low paying jobs, about $8 an hour once insurance costs are deducted.
That level of pay will not qualify workers for home loans and other necessary life expenses, Watson said.
The financial impact of Louis Vuitton will cause a strain on the county from road maintenance to other costs.
“Louis Vuitton will cost Johnson County money if you approve this abatement,” Watson said.
Resident April Dunn minced no words in her opposition to the project.
“All of us who oppose Louis Vuitton in our quiet community have been called irrational, paranoid, liars, idiots and fools,” Dunn said. “If standing up for our rights and what we believe in makes us those things then we’re guilty.
“It is wrong that our officials have decided that a business is more important than the people who voted for them.”
The community surrounding Louis Vuitton’s property should have been included in the decision and had more input, Dunn said.
Dunn dismissed company claims that Louis Vuitton will be a good neighbor.
“We do not see a 100,000-square-foot building, a 500-space-plus parking lot, bright lights and removal of trees to widen roads for more traffic as a good neighbor,” Dunn said. “To make matters worse, Louis Vuitton wants tax abatements of roughly $91,000 for probably 10 years. This is absurd.
“Especially since our county sheriff has been asked to cut his budget by $25,000. We have to pay taxes. So should Louis Vuitton. As this issue stands at this very moment, those of us opposed to Louis Vuitton feel like our elected officials have abandoned us for business.
“There is a proper place for Louis Vuitton, and that is in an industrial park.”
County resident Eric Baze said statutory inconsistencies plague the project, including grants secured by Keene for road improvements and warned that the county will end up with full responsibility for the project.
Bobby de la Garza, owner of Cleburne Ford, called Louis Vuitton’s arrival an exciting opportunity for the community.
“There were several states in competition for this project and, within Texas, there were several cities in competition,” de la Garza said. “For us to be at this juncture is an incredible privilege.”
Attracting major companies involves give and take on the part of all cities, de la Garza said, but argued that the payoff brings jobs, economic growth and increased tax base.
Those taxes will benefit schools, de la Garza said.
“I’m in favor of providing the best opportunity for our children,” de la Garza said. “They are our next generation.”
Keene Economic Development Director Michael Talley said a company of Louis Vuitton’s history and magnitude brings with it huge opportunities for economic growth.
County resident Dan Boutwell agreed.
“I live in the county, not the cities, and have been here 40 years,” Boutwell said. “And I like to see good things happen to this place.”
Boutwell said he has seen good and bad development projects during his years as an urban planner and working with economic development directors.
“Let me assure you,” Boutwell said. “This is probably one of the best.”
Manasco, Baze and others said, after Friday’s meeting, that they expected that commissioners would approve the requests but vowed to battle on.
“We were expecting this,” Manasco said. “But it’s a long, bumpy road, just like CR 318, and it’s just one step of a long process.”