Dowling has been working with the county for much of the past year to arrive at a lease agreement for a two-acre tract the county owns on lower Russ Avenue past K-Mart. But commissioners are divided on the idea.
Commissioners Larry Ammons and Kirk Kirkpatrick are reluctant to lease that particular site to Mountain Projects. Both see it as potentially incongruous with the expansion of the Russ Avenue commercial corridor in the future. The site could fetch top dollar as prime commercial land one day, whereas a Head Start and senior day care could go anywhere.
“I am certainly not opposed at all to this particular project and would like to see it go. I just don’t know if this is the best place,” Kirkpatrick said.
However, Commissioners Bill Upton and Mary Ann Enloe support leasing the site to Mountain Projects. Both said the county’s obligation to help disadvantaged toddlers and seniors who can’t stay home alone is more important than the future commercial value of the site.
“I think we need to look after our people. I think that’s what the taxpayers want us to do,” Upton said, calling it the “right thing.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis has avoided weighing in. Curtis, apparently the swing vote on the issue, has not yet revealed which side he is leaning to, despite a recurring discussion of the issue at every commissioner meeting since March.
The issue marks the first major disagreement among the new board of commissioners — two of the five commissioners were newly elected to the board last fall.
In the meantime, Dowling is running out of time. The current Head Start in Waynesville is busting at the seams. Dowling wants to have a new center ready by May 2008 when the lease on the current building runs out.
“I am a year away from having to relocate a large number of children,” Dowling told commissioners this week. “I really need this issue clarified. If this is not something you are willing to accept, then I just really need to know.”
For the past year, Dowling thought she had a verbal agreement from the county and was led to believe a lease was eminent.
“I operated a year under the assumption we were getting the property,” Dowling said.
But apparently the commissioners weren’t all on board. Ammons and Kirkpatrick thought the lease to Mountain Projects was just an idea being bantered about. Enloe and Upton sided with Dowling, claiming the county made a promise and a commitment.
Curtis said bringing the issue to a vote seemed to be the only way to solve the apparent disagreement.
“It looks like we are kind of going around in circles here,” Curtis said at the commissioners meeting this week. Neither side took Curtis up on the suggestion of a vote, however, possibly afraid it wouldn’t go their way. In any case, no motion for a vote was made. Instead, commissioners decided to return to the drawing board on the lease.
Who gets the land?
The sticking point in the lease is whether Mountain Projects keeps the land at the end of the 40-year lease or whether the county gets the land back.
Dowling told commissioners such a clause would be a deal breaker. Mountain Projects plans to construct a building on the site. If it has to turn over the land, that means the building would also go. Dowling said she can’t get federal funding for the lease — let alone to construct a building — if Mt. Projects has to give it all up at the end of 40 years.
A clause that would turn over both the land and building after 40 years was included in a draft lease prepared by County Attorney Chip Killian and presented at the commissioner’s meeting this week. Enloe expressed her disappointment with the clause at the meeting.
“Once they have paid for the building, it belongs to them,” Enloe said. “This (lease) even has a sentence in here about turning over the keys. I was not at any meeting where this was discussed, turning over the keys. We didn’t vote on that to go in here. That was not part of the discussion. The important thing is not who said to put it in there, but to get it out.”
Dowling had checked with the federal agency providing funding for the land and building to see if it would OK the plan to give the building and land to the county.
“Basically, they say ‘absolutely not,’” Dowling said.
Ammons proposed a compromise: if the county wants the land back in 40 years, the county would pay Mountain Projects fair market value for the building. Or, the county could opt to renew the lease.
“Forty years is an awful long time,” Ammons said. “I would like to see whoever is sitting here 40 years from now to have the flexibility to do what is best for the taxpayers at that time.”
Ammon’s proposed compromise is still problematic for Mountain Projects, however. Dowling said the federal agency funding the Head Start center expects both the land and building to be owned outright after 40 years, like a typical lease-purchase.
“I don’t think they will accept anything other than owning the building at the end of the lease,” Dowling told commissioners.
Nonetheless, Ammons suggested drafting a new version of the lease with the buy-out clause and running it past the federal agency just to see.
Following the meeting, Dowling said she is growing frustrated.
“Early on, I said time is an issue,” Dowling said. “The amount of time that it has taken to reach a resolution on this is very frustrating to me.”
Kirkpatrick suggested finding another piece of property for the Head Start and senior day care center.
“If you give me another piece of property in that is not in a potentially viable commercial area, I have no problem supporting this one bit,” Kirkpatrick said. “As far as the future of this county and this piece of property, I don’t think it fits. We are pushing this to make it fit.”
“I’m not opposed to looking at other sites, but if we want to do that we have to get in gear and help them do that,” Curtis said.
Dowling said Mountain Projects started looking for other land two months ago when the controversy started, but so far hasn’t found anything where she could build both a Head Start and senior day care on the same site.
Dowling said she has actually gotten calls from several people who read about the lease controversy with the county and offered to sell Mountain Projects a tract for its needs.
“I didn’t realize how many friends of Mountain Projects were out there,” Dowling said.
Following the meeting, Enloe questioned the opposition and various stumbling blocks posed by Ammons and Kirkpatrick in drafting the lease.
“From the beginning it has looked to me that they have not wanted, for whatever reason, for Mountain Projects to have that property,” Enloe said.
The property in question fell into the county’s lap a little over a year ago. It was previously owned by the Haywood County Council on Aging — along with a well-furnished, brand-new office building next door to the site. The agency imploded due to a financial scandal, however, risking foreclosure on the property.
The county commissioners stepped in and assumed the mortgage, primarily to get the office building, which has come in handy for county offices while the historic courthouse is being renovated. The county had no immediate use for the neighboring two-acre tract, however. Looking to offset the cost of the mortgage, the county broached the idea of selling or leasing the neighboring tract to Mountain Projects.
Enloe questioned whether Kirkpatrick and Ammons are now opposing the lease due to politics.
“There is a very real probability that this is a personal thing against the former chairman and me,” Enloe said, referring to herself and former commissioner chairman Mark Swanger. “We were instrumental in coming up with the plans to salvage that bad situation. It would be very disappointing to me if the children and senior citizens of Haywood County are being punished because I’m sitting on this board.”
Swanger and Enloe are in opposite political camps as Ammons and Kirkpatrick. Prior to the election last fall, Ammons and Kirkpatrick were in the minority on the board, but now the tables are turned.
Enloe said it is also possible Ammons, Kirkpatrick and Curtis have plans for the property she isn’t privy to.