Cotton growers gain research site for free:As the article notes (and Porkopolis has documented), the original intent was to sell the facility to fund the building of the new facility; a facility that would benefit the two lobbies noted in the article.
(A federal law has authorized the free transfer of the Western Cotton Research Laboratory, 4135 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix, and some adjoining land to the Arizona Cotton Growers Association.)
By Le Templar, Tribune
November 28, 2005
Arizona cotton farmer lobbyists have won a generous gift from taxpayers this holiday season: A research complex in east Phoenix worth several million dollars.
Congress, led by almost all of Arizona’s delegation, recently approved the transfer of 7 acres and 37 buildings that make up the Western Cotton Research Laboratory.
After nearly 37 years of scientific discovery, the U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to abandon the site at 4135 E. Broadway Road early next year and move the lab to another research center owned by the University of Arizona.
Lawmakers and the Arizona Cotton Growers Association describe the deal as repayment of a benevolent grant in 1966, when the association and a partner organization originally donated the land to the federal government.
"Essentially, they wanted the land to be used for cotton research," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz. "And it was for decades. But then, without consulting the cotton growers, the federal government decided to stop using it. Our understanding is if it wasn’t going to be used for that purpose anymore, the land was supposed to return to them."
But the transfer conflicts with the wishes of President Bush. His administration proposed selling the land just west of Tempe on the open market, along with other federal property in the area. A citizen journalist from Cincinnati who writes Internet stories objecting to government giveaways for special interests said the deal appears to be another type of "congressional pork."
"I think the case can be made, as a taxpayer, that the cotton growers have gotten a huge benefit since the 1970s with all the research there that has helped their industry," said Mario Delgado, who first wrote about the transfer on his Internet blog, Porkopolis. "It’s millions of dollars’ worth."
A top administrator for the cotton growers admits his association probably would not have received the land, located just behind its headquarters, without the help of Congress.
The federal government has a lengthy process for disposing of surplus property. And land values have been skyrocketing in this part of east Phoenix, which houses a growing number of office and light-industrial complexes.
"This is a case of where if we had to stand in line, we would never have gotten a shot at it," said Rick Lavis, executive vice president of the cotton growers association.
A HISTORY LESSON
Lavis and members of Congress said explaining why the land transfer is appropriate requires looking back to the mid-1960s, when federal officials approached the association about a donation.
Cotton was the state’s reigning crop then, as evident by the miles of green fields along Broadway Road that once separated a much smaller Phoenix and Tempe. But cotton farmers feared for their future.
An infestation of the pink boll worm that started in 1958 appeared to be unstoppable. Another pest, the boll weevil, had just made its first appearance in the state. Meanwhile, cotton prices were dropping and growers worried Congress wasn’t going to provide enough help through price subsidies or by blocking foreign imports.
Association records on file at the Arizona Historical Foundation show the group wanted more research on fighting pests and boosting production. So the group swiftly supported a request for 7 acres to be added to an existing federal/university research center. The farmers were joined by the Arizona Cotton Planting Seed Distributors, a marketing group now known as SuPima.
The 1966 property deed on file at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office is clear about the intent of the two groups: The federal government had to start building the research lab within 2 1 /2 years or the land would return to them.
The deed has no provisions about what should happen if the cotton lab was moved later. But Arizona lawmakers say they are convinced the growers still expected to get the land back.
"They didn’t have lawyers back then," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "It was just farmers dealing with the federal government."
Now, the cotton fields are gone, and the related facilities are relics in an urban, industrial area. The Bush administration decided a couple of years ago to reorganize the cotton laboratory by combining it with a nearby water conservation laboratory and moving both to a new $28 million facility east of Maricopa in Pinal County.
Under that plan, the unneeded property would be sold at fair market value to help pay for the new project.
But when the cotton growers learned about the changes, they asked Arizona’s congressional delegation to help them bypass the normal procedures for obtaining government property.
Rep. Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat whose district includes the cotton lab site, sponsored a bill in January to deed the lab site back to the original owners. The bill was co-sponsored by all House members from Arizona of both parties, including Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has developed a national reputation for opposing all types of government giveaways.
"You could say the cotton growers sacrificed their land for all of those years, and it’s only fair that they get it back," Pastor said.
The proposal eventually became part of an agriculture budget bill that Bush signed into law Nov. 10.
A FAIR DEAL?
The cotton growers and SuPima haven’t decided what to do with the property, Lavis said. The groups fund private research that could move into the buildings, but redevelopment also is a possibility, Lavis said.
Transforming the property into a business venture could be lucrative. A real estate broker said land in the area is selling for $11 to $12 a square foot, which would make the site worth at least $3.6 million. And a new office/retail site has opened next door, with the first tenant signing a $1 million lease over 10 years, according to GlobeSt.com.
In any case, SuPima and the cotton growers association won’t pay any property taxes on the site as both groups are nonprofits entitled to state tax exemptions.
Delgado claimed the two cotton groups are getting an unfair double benefit, since the cotton lab will move to a new location and continue to conduct research funded by taxpayers.
"Ultimately, it was bad management for Congress by giving it away instead of selling it and using the proceeds for something they knew the government is building," Delgado said.
- Rayme DeHay contributed to this report for the Tribune.
A sister facility, the U.S. Water Conservation Lab, is being sold and its proceeds will be used to fund the new joint facility.
The intervention by Congress is nothing short of special treatment for the two lobbies, with the taxpayers left holding the bill.