When a group of investors decided to build a golf course in Virginia Beach, one of the first places they went to find financing was not a bank but a little-known public agency called the Virginia Beach Development Authority.
Although a golf course might not seem to be what an industry-hunting agency would want, the investors were not disappointed.
The development authority quickly approved the project, giving the investors a document called a "resolution of inducement" that they could take to almost any bank and cash in for a low-interest, $1.5 million loan subsidized indirectly by American taxpayers.
While many people might question the propriety of public support for such a project, officials of the Virginia Beach Golf Club, which plans to build the course, see it differently. "It will enhance the (tourist) industry," said the club's attorney, Thomas C. Broyles. "Right now, people don't come to Virginia Beach to play golf because the courses are extremely busy."
The arrangement -- called "welfare for business" by critics -- is not unusual or illegal in industry-hungry Virginia. Businesses there have financed everything from executive aircraft to race-car tracks and supermarkets with publicly approved loans that used to go almost exclusively to finance factories, warehouses and other more traditional industries.
Thanks to what is generally conceded to be one of the least stringent laws in the nation covering industrial development bonds, all a Virginia development authority has to do, if it has any doubts, is to get a local circuit court judge to endorse a "petition of validation," which states that a project is qualified under Virginia law for a loan that will be exempt from both federal and state income taxes. Such petitions are frequently sought -- and routinely given.
"It's a good deal for everyone," insists Alfred Shilling, a Richmond lawyer who has handled so many of the transactions that he's known in Virginia municipal circles as "Mr. Bond Counsel." Beneficiaries of the program, Shilling says, include both the borrowers -- who get low-interest loans -- and banks and other lending institutions, which don't have to pay any income taxes on the interest they make on the loans. By eliminating the taxes, businesses often are able to get loans that cut in half their financing costs.
Shilling makes no apologies for the program. "We've got welfare for the farmers, we've got welfare for the poor -- this is just another level of subsidy," he said.
Critics say the program is making losers of the American taxpayer. In 1979, the tax-free loans nationwide cost the U.S. Treasury about $1 billion, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office.
Virginia authorities aren't alone in their enthusiasm for such financing schemes. A Chester, Pa., development agency issued a bond for a night spot featuring topless go-go dancers, an arrangement that has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill.
"It appears we're looking at a very wasteful federal subsidy program to promote construction of massage parlors, dirty bookstores and fast-food restaurants," complains Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. "The whole idea would be silly if it wasn't a waste of federal dollars."
Yet Congress, which created the scheme in 1968 to help industry-poor regions, has set few limits on the scheme's use and set no reporting requirements, leaving that up to the states. That's just the way the Virginians like it.
Take the Norfolk industrial authority, for example. It recently approved industrial bonds for two firms -- Virginia Chemicals and the Royster Co. -- so they could buy private aircraft to ferry their executives to branch plants. The authority's justification was that when commercial airlines dropped their Norfolk service, the companies' executives had no easy and quick way to get to their branches."
I don't feel a bit uncomfortable," said one authority official. "If the companies didn't have adequate transportation, they might leave Norfolk."
In another celebrated case, an industrial authority in Chesapeake issued bonds to finance construction of a supermarket in a Richmond suburb. The rationale: construction of the grocery would help farmers in Chesapeake. t
The bonds have also generated friction between localities. The town of Lexington, in the Shenandoah Valley southwest of Washington, is fighting efforts by the industrial authority in surrounding Rockbridge County to grant a $2 million bond to the giant K-mart retail chain to build a store near the town. In a case it is appealing to the Virginia Supreme Court, Lexington is arguing that the new K-mart would adversely affect the two small department stores located in its downtown. w
(Largely by using subsidized bonds, Kmart has been able to become the second biggest retailer in the United States in less than a decade, passing long-established companies like Montgomery Ward. According to the yet-to-be-published Congressional Budget Office study, Kmart, between 1975 and 1979, built 60 stores in 18 states with a total of $126 million in low-cost bonds.)
The biggest commercial project to be endorsed for a low-cost loan in Virginia is a Daytona-style race-car speedway that would be built in Dinwiddie County southwest of Petersburg near the North Carolina border. The speedway, which would be built by Paul Sawyer Associates of Richmond, would cost $8.5 million.
In Northern Virginia, the most controversial project to date was the Fairfax Economic Development Authority's recent approval of a $7 million office building to be built by direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie, who has been a longtime champion of the free enterprise system. After his loan application was approved by the agency, Viguerie said he saw no reason why he should let his philosophical attitudes stand in the way of his using a program that could save him money.
While many businesses have been able to benefit by low-cost loans granted through industrial development bonds, the lending banks have profited too. Because almost all banks are in the highest tax bracket -- 46 percent -- almost half of the interest on their conventional loans goes for federal income taxes. That means that a conventional loan at, say, 13 percent, will return a profit of only about 7 percent. But a tax-free loan, based on current lending practices, would be about 8 1/2 percent, or almost 25 percent more profitable than the higher interest conventional loan.