By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor

SOUTHBRIDGE – Town Council approved a tax increment financing agreement (TIF) for United Lens Monday, Oct. 29. The agreement pertains to a $15 million upgrade to the manufacturer’s facility located at 259 Worcester Street. That amount will be used to build a central utility building and “a multitude of other improvements” to modernize its facilities. The company says the alternative to this renovation and TIF agreement is to move the company out of state.

The town received short notice that the company, which was founded in Southbridge and has operated in town for over a century, was requesting the agreement and required the town to decide before a State deadline of Nov. 7. According to United Lens CEO Bill Lannon, research for the renovations and improvements has been ongoing for about two years, but leaders at the company learned about two weeks ago that a deadline set by the state would require them to decide by Nov. 7 whether to stay in their current location or to bring operations elsewhere.

Lannon says that to stay in Southbridge, they would need to secure the tax increment financing agreement. $15 million is already committed to improvements and modernization of facilities; the company must decide whether to invest in its current location or to build at a new location out of state.

“So I have to decide if I’m going to spend that kind of money, do I spend it here or do I leave? It’s pretty much that simple. We are being, romanced, for lack of a better term, by other states. And it’s probably the same money to pick up and move it,” Lannon told the council.

The agreement would provide relief on taxes created by the new property, above what would ordinarily be paid to the town in property tax. The TIF would create a 100 percent tax exemption on the increase in property assessment for the first five years, a 75 percent tax exemption in the second five years, and a 50 percent tax exemption for the third five years after construction.

“This is a matter of great importance and a partnership that has been long outstanding. As you know, the Town of Southbridge and United Lens have a long-term relationship and they are a company that originated in town. They’ve really done a great job of supporting the town in a whole host of ways, including charity agreements and such,” said Southbridge Town Manager Ron San Angelo.

The facility at 259 Worcester Street is a 1,000 square foot building with three levels. The renovation would create an additional 3,780 square feet. The building is currently assessed at $3,143,300. This is one of many buildings owned by United Lens, which have a total assessed property value of $8,146,000.

Although the council voted unanimously to approve the tax agreement rather than lose the historic Southbridge business, several councilors expressed concern about the sudden nature of the request. The Economic Development Commission had unanimously approved the agreement before he town council meeting.

“The only thing we didn’t care for this time is that we had a very short time to make a decision. But we believe we made the best decision for the town,” commented David Livengood, Chair of the Economic Development Commission. “The cost to the town when you break it down is almost negligible when you actually look at the number figures. I mean, it’s money, but its not big money.”

Town councilor John Daniel supported the agreement but would have preferred notice further in advance.

“I believe this is a worthwhile project and I am going to support it. United Lens has been a good partner to us for a long time, 102 years. And to be frank and honest, I’m not thrilled with the timeline. It does seem kind of fast. I would have liked a little more time to look at it but I am willing to accept your explanation and think this is a worthwhile enterprise for you and I wish you much luck for another 102 years,” Daniel said.

In reply, Lannon said that “Although it may be a surprise to you, it was a surprise to us when we get all the information we’ve been working on and the state says, ‘The book closes November seventh’ So we need to make a decision now. So the other people we are talking to, they deserve an answer as well. Here we are. It wasn’t done intentionally, it wasn’t done to upset anyone. It was just that we had no idea there was a cutoff of November seventh.”

Councilor Monique Manna expressed support for the agreement.

“I am in full support of this. Our town cannot afford to lose businesses to other states, or even other towns. United Lens has been in the community for well over a century and they’re great business partners so I will fully support what is brought in front of us,” Manna said.

Work on the United Lens facility in Southbridge will begin as soon as it can be arranged. Leaders from the company told council that they would like to begin work before winter. The full Town Council meeting of Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, can be seen on Southbridge Community Cable’s YouTube channel.

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