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Approve Ballot Measure to Benefit Boy Scouts, State

West Virginia is fortunate that the Boy Scouts of America chose this state over more than two dozen others for the site of the Summit Bechtel Reserve (SBR). I was proud to see how the SBR in Fayette County showcased West Virginia for outdoor sports and natural beauty when it hosted its first National Scout Jamboree in 2013. I look forward to the next National Scout Jamboree there in 2017 and the World Scout Jamboree there in 2019.

Those big events, as well as smaller Scouting activities, are what the SBR was built for. As the father of two Eagle Scouts who learned many valuable life lessons through Scouting, I wish the SBR had been available when they were young.

I also would like the Boy Scouts to be able to get more use out of the SBR when the Scouts aren’t using it, and there is a way all of us West Virginia voters can help with that. Over its 10,600 acres, the SBR has world-class facilities for such outdoor sports as archery, shooting, kayaking, skateboarding, mountain biking, BMX biking, swimming and rock climbing. It also has an amphitheater that can seat 80,000 people. Most of the time, those facilities sit empty. But they could get greater use if the Boy Scouts were allowed to rent them out to other organizations.

The only reason the SBR facilities are not rented out already is because, under state law as it now stands, doing so could jeopardize the SBR’s property tax exemption. The SBR gets that exemption, because of the Boys Scouts’ status as a nonprofit organization. But renting out the facilities to other organizations, even if that occurred just once, could cost the SBR its exemption. And that cost would be high – more than $5 million a year.

However, if the Boy Scouts could rent out SBR facilities, the government actually would collect more tax revenue. It wouldn’t come from property taxes but from the taxes visitors would pay to buy gas as they passed through West Virginia, to buy food at West Virginia restaurants, to buy lodging at West Virginia hotels and motels and to buy many other items that might interest them along the way. Of course, that also would help many West Virginia merchants. The merchants in and around Fayette County would benefit the most, but those all along the major highways to and from Fayette County would get a share of that spending. The Northern Panhandle, where I live, probably would not get many of those purchases, but all of us in the state would benefit from the tax revenues paid primarily by out-of-state visitors.

Another fortunate aspect of the SBR is that the Boys Scouts and several private contributors chose to invest more than $350 million to build it in southern West Virginia. That is the part of the state suffering the most from the downturn in the coal industry and not sharing in the natural gas boom. That area must diversify its economy beyond coal for future prosperity. Tourism is not the only way to do that, but it is an important element in the mix. There is no other facility like the SBR to offer such strong potential to attract more visitors for outdoor activities.

There is a simple way to unleash that potential. When we go to the polls for the November election, we need to vote for a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It’s called the “Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exemption Support Amendment.” It would preserve the property tax exemption for nonprofit youth organizations with properties built at a “cost of at least $100 million whether or not the property is used for the nonprofit youth organization’s charitable or nonprofit purpose to help raise funds for the benefit of the nonprofit youth organization.”

The only property meeting that definition is the SBR, so there is no danger that approval of the amendment would extend any other property tax exemption. Frankly, if West Virginia could attract another development that would meet that definition, we should welcome it.

Right now, we have one property, the SBR, we could put to greater use for all of West Virginia’s benefit. That’s why we should vote in favor of the constitutional amendment.

Wilmoth is managing member of the Wheeling office of the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson. He previously served as U.S. attorney for more than five years.

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