Bob Evans to move headquarters to New Albany

Staff Writer
The Columbus Dispatch

Plans by Bob Evans Farms to move its corporate headquarters out of Columbus has left city officials feeling duped by a deal that will result in a significant loss of tax revenue.

The company said yesterday that it will move its headquarters to New Albany and the 360 jobs that go with it, as well as 150 new jobs that are expected to be added in the next five years.

Bob Evans will construct a building to house the headquarters in the area Rt. 161 and Beech Road in Licking County. It is expected to open in 2013.

"We felt like they misled us,the state and New Albany," said Dan Williamson, a spokesmanfor Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Columbus is expected to lose $600,000 annually in tax revenue because of the deal.

Columbus offered Bob Evans several options - sweetened by millions in incentives - to remain in the city. The company chose a different path.

"Everything they asked for, we delivered. We feel like they used us as leverage to gain a better deal from New Albany."

Steve Davis, Bob Evans' CEO, declined to address the city's comment directly, but said, "I know the truth." He also said the restaurant and food-manufacturing company has "the wherewithal" to move the company anywhere it wants.

County officials also said they were surprised by the move. Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks said she doesn't think "any of the commissioners knew this was in discussion or in the works."

"Because Bob Evans is moving across the border to Licking County, our levy agencies will lose tax revenues," she said. "I wish the county had been contacted and had a broader team approach" to keeping the company in Franklin County.

Davis said New Albany was picked for numerous reasons, including abundant land, good infrastructure and proximity to Port Columbus. The company needs more room and flexibility than it has at its current headquarters, he said.

Bob Evans, which has annual revenue of $1.75 billion, owns and operates 569 full-service restaurants in 18 states with a heavy concentration in the Midwest.

The company felt it had four choices, Davis said during a news conference at company headquarters yesterday: renovate its current offices and remain on the South Side; move the headquarters to an existing building; build a headquarters from scratch; or move the company out of Ohio and build on land it owns near Dallas.

Before the news conference, Williamson said the city had worked with the company to try to keep it from moving away and that Bob Evans officials had told Coleman that the company "had no intention of leaving the state of Ohio."

To keep the company and its tax revenue in Columbus, the city offered Bob Evans an incentive package estimated at more than $14 million. That included a new building at Polaris; a tax abatement of up to 100 percent for 15 years; a 25 percent, seven-year cash incentive for new jobs; and an agreement by Delaware County to back a state-issued loan to purchase the current Bob Evans headquarters, estimatedat $5 million, Williamson said.

"Representatives from Bob Evans indicated the purchase of their current headquarters was a 'game-changer' and that it was the difference between staying in Columbus and leaving," he said. "We're disappointed."

Columbus and New Albany weren't the only locations Bob Evans considered in central Ohio. The company reportedly was interested in Upper Arlington's largest vacant office building, the former AOL headquarters, and the city was eager to have them.

"That was a hope," said Frank Ciotola, Upper Arlington City Council president. "We were aggressively trying to get them."

The business was looking at the property at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd. about the same time that Tree of Life Christian School was actively involved in acquiring the property, said Emma Speight, city spokeswoman.

"Obviously, Tree of Life was already interested in moving ahead on the property, and that was not in our control," she said.

Ciotola hinted that offers from Ohio development officials and New Albany could not be matched by Upper Arlington.

New Albany's incentive package would save Bob Evans $9.8 million and includes a property-tax abatement of $8.29 million over 15 years, an income-tax credit of $826,000 and a loan program that includes a $1 million interest-free loan for 10 years, said Scott McAfee, spokesman for New Albany.

"It's a great thing for New Albany," he said. "It brings about 360 jobs with it, and plans are for the company to get closer to 510 jobs within the next five years."

Bob Evans also was offered an incentive package from the state that includes a research-and-development investment loan of $3 million; a job-creation tax credit of $2.4 million; a research-and-development investment-tax credit of $1.05 million; a roadwork-development (629) account (to Columbus) for $750,000; a rapid-outreach grant of $250,000; and a work-force guarantee of $250,000, said Bethany McCorkle, a Development Department spokeswoman.

The news conference was attended by Gov. John Kasich, who said the state's ability to entice employers to remain in Ohio will combat another serious problem - population loss.

Holding a packet of newspaper clippings detailing huge populations losses in most of Ohio's major cities, Kasich said people left the state in the past 10 years because their jobs were going to other states.

"Do you see what's happening in this state?" Kasich said. "People are heading for the exits.

"We've got to convince people to stay in Ohio. If we can make it worth their while to stay with jobs and low costs and pay so much in taxes and all that, we'll be OK. But it doesn't happen in a day."

Kasich said the state doesn't interfere in or try to influence a resident company's choices for relocation within Ohio.

Davis said Bob Evans will try to help find a viable tenant for its current South Side home. He said the company didn't want to leave the economically disadvantaged area without another company to move into the campus.

"They've got beautiful grounds and buildings out there, so it shouldn't be hard to get someone else in there," said Mike Wiles, a Columbus City Schools board member and a South Side activist.

While Bob Evans' plans to leave the area aren't "the most devastating blow to the South Side, we do hate to see them leave," he said.

Dispatch reporters Joe Vardon and Dean Narciso contributed to this story.