- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The Greenbrier resort and its billionaire owner struck a deal late this legislative session worth up to $25 million in tax breaks over 10 years for a new medical institute.

But several state lawmakers have soured on the tax carve-out, saying it surfaced with little notice.

Promising access to world-renowned doctors who cater to professional athletes, the Greenbrier first announced plans for the $86 million initiative in 2011. Owner Jim Justice says the resort-style medical facility is one component of about $400 million in tourism projects he has in the works.

The investments are expected to create more than 1,000 new jobs. Justice said project unveilings will happen next week.

The sports medical facility is about 15 months from opening, he said.

“Landing this medical center was unbelievable,” Justice told The Associated Press. “It could have gone anywhere in the world. It could have gone 10 miles down the road and landed in Virginia. I wouldn’t let it happen.”

The break for the health center first came in front of lawmakers publicly Friday, the second-to-last day of the 60-day legislative session. The Legislature passed the tax credit Saturday, and now it just needs Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signature to become law.

“It did come in late in the session,” Tomblin said. “I’ll continue to look at it. I think the concept of having that kind of service in West Virginia is a great thing. It’s going to bring a lot of out-of-state money into the state.”

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, argued that the facility was already in the works, tax break or not.

Barnes added that the state shouldn’t be focusing on breaks for a businessman worth $1.6 billion, who ranks 362nd on Forbes magazine’s list of the country’s wealthiest people. Justice made his fortune in coal and agriculture.

“We’ve struggled on the minimum wage issue to give our lowest wage earners a few cents on the dollar,” said Barnes, who voted against the final version of a minimum wage bill this session but supported a more modest increase. “And then we turn around and give one of West Virginia’s wealthiest citizens a huge, multimillion-dollar tax break.”

Justice bought the Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $20.1 million. The resort dates to 1778 and has hosted presidents and royalty. It features a hotel, casino, spa, dozens of amenities and a once-secret underground bunker built for Congress in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.

It also hosts an annual PGA Tour golf tournament on its White Sulphur Springs course.

Only a handful of people, including statehouse leaders, know the other projects Justice is planning, said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. But Kessler pointed out that Justice has consistently poured money into the West Virginia economy.

“I hear the naysayers say, ‘Why are we giving a billionaire a tax credit?’ ” Kessler said. “Well, because the billionaire is willing to put half-a-billion dollars’ worth of investment in our state.”

Greenbrier lobbyist Larry Puccio said the new medical center met criteria for a tourism break on sales tax, which the Legislature reauthorized this year. But Greenbrier executives realized during session that medical facilities already are exempt from sales tax, said Puccio, who also serves as the state Democratic Party chairman.

Lawmakers inserted the break on corporate income tax, which specifically meets Greenbrier’s needs. The break would apply to investments of $80 million or more at historic hotels that primarily serve out-of-state or international clientele. The credit is worth 25 percent of the total investment, at a maximum of $2.5 million a year for 10 years.

Puccio said other soon-to-be-named projects could receive additional breaks on sales tax in the tourism bill.

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