The vote needed to bring TripAdvisor back to town passed last night's Special Town Meeting.
Town Meeting Members descended on Town Hall to learn more about the the tax increment financing (TIF) program proposed by the Selectmen to bring travel site TripAdvisor to Needham's growing business park. It was the only article on the warrant
Town Meeting also voted to amend the article with an "emergency preamble," a section of language which would put the article into effect immediately with no option for citizen petition.
Before the agreement is official, it must be approved by a state board, which has shifted its deadlines to accommodate the Town's vote, Moderator Michael Fee said at the beginning of the evening.
Needham Selectman Jerry Wasserman spoke for the article, calling TripAdvisor "a game changer."
The TIF would give TripAdvisor an percentage of exemption on property taxes for a period of time, as the company plans to move will be bringing 450 jobs from their Newton offices. The bulk of the exemption would come during the first five-year period of the 13-year TIF agreement, with a much smaller exemption during the remaining years.
Wasserman said that in the board's view, there were two options before them: wait for a company willing to move in and build the office, or take the sensible option and agree to the TIF with "could bring about major change in competitiveness of this park."
One condition of this is that the company adds 50 jobs per year to the staff of 450 moving over from the Newton office. If the company fails to do that, they lose the TIF exemption for the following year. However, TripAdvisor expects to grow faster than that.
The TIF only applies to the first phase of construction, a 230,000-square-foot office space TripAdvisor will move into. The lot, however, can have a second office building of around 200,000 square feet. While TripAdvisor has not yet committed to this second space, it aims to expand into it.
"If our headcount is as expected, we may be calling for phase two by 2015, when we expect to move in," said Tyler Young, Vice President of Finance and Administration at TripAdvisor.
The Finance Committee unanimously approved of the article, according to Chair Richard Reilly. He added that the move was the right solution at the right time, and that comparable companies would also insist on a TIF.
His analogy (which he stressed was not that of the Committee) was that passing on TripAdvisor would be like, in high school, him passing going to prom with the prom queen, in hopes that Elizabeth Taylor would come to town and ask him out.
The timing did not seem right to everyone at Town Meeting, and a dissenting voices were among those who spoke.
"Everyone in this hall wants the business center to flourish, but there is more than one way to make that happen," said Sam Warner, a Precinct E Town Meeting Member. "This is not the time to give a discount."
Warner and other Town Meeting Members questioned the impact a TIF would have on the larger business community in the state, with towns competing to offer agreements to businesses to attract them. Some Members suggested that the deal could happen without a TIF in place.
"This is not the place for philosophical discussions," Town Meeting Member from Pct I Michael Greis noted. "Look at places where the tech companies are: they’re in Boston, they’re in Cambridge, and they're in a few other places. Needham isn’t the top of the list; we have to work a bit harder."
Speaking for the Needham Business Association, Kathy Lewis, a Precinct D Town Meeting Member, said that the Association unanimously supports the agreement.
Ultimately the question was called, and in a voice vote with a two-thirds majority, both the emergency preamble and the main motion were approved. Putting the TIF agreement into effect.