“We’re under such a time constraint right now, it’s not feasible to try to do all the research that we need,” said County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “We’re running out of time, so we’re asking to cancel the contract and continue to explore options, maybe even help them find people to use it. We just could not legitimately find any use for it at this point.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to cancel the contract following a closed session Jan. 22. This represented a shift from the 3-2 vote Nov. 9 that allowed Jackson to enter into the contract, which included a Feb. 1 deadline.
During the Nov. 9 vote, the two Democrats on the board — McMahan and Commissioner Boyce Deitz — voted against the purchase while the three Republicans — Commissioners Ron Mau, Mickey Luker and Charles Elders — voted in favor. In the intervening months, the board has flipped to a 3-2 Democratic majority with Commissioner Gayle Woody’s November victory over Elders.
Following the November vote, Mau had said that he believed the purchase would “provide the county with some opportunities to pursue some projects that would benefit the county and accomplish goals or address issues that have been ongoing in Jackson County for some time,” though he added that it would be “premature” to list what those opportunities might be.
In a phone interview Jan. 25, Mau added that he thought the Pepsi property could be the solution to ongoing issues at the Southwestern Community College shooting range. A 2014 discovery that use over the years had resulted in 60 tons of lead embedded in the range’s soil spurred a series of remediation efforts totaling $465,000 over a period of several years. Commissioners have also received complaints about the noise emanating from the range and have engaged a firm to explore strategies for sound abatement. Options range from the simple, such as planting more vegetation to absorb the sound, to the complex, such as building a roof or installing baffling over the range.
Mau sees the Pepsi building as a possible solution to that issue.
“We could potentially convert the Pepsi plant into an indoor shooting range, eliminate the sound and the environmental concerns of pumping lead into the ground,” said Mau.
However, he said, there are too many “outstanding questions” on such a plan to make any kind of decision before the Feb. 1 contract deadline. Jackson County originally went under contract for the property because another party had offered to buy it, and due to a previous agreement the county had the right of first refusal. But that other buyer is no longer interested, said Mau, so down the road Jackson County could still end up purchasing the property.
“At first we thought we had to do something in a hurry, but then that deal disappeared and I don’t know if there’s anybody rushing to buy something within a floodway,” he said.
The property is adjacent to the old Drexel Furniture Plant, which the county also owns and several years ago had considered redeveloping as an agricultural and community center. Those plans fell apart, partly due to the cost of renovating the aging building but also due to the restrictions imposed by the property’s location in the floodplain of the Tuckaseigee River. The Pepsi property is also in the floodplain.
McMahan said that the Pepsi facility is a “great building” and agreed that the county could be interested in buying it at a later date if the property remains for sale — the $500,000 price tag is a steal, considering that the property’s tax value is $1.9 million.
“If somebody else comes forward and needs it and can help create jobs and put people to work or whatever the arrangement was, we would support that as well,” said McMahan.
While the county will not be paying the $500,000 purchase price, it did spend $1,250 on survey and title work before canceling the contract. However, that amount is far less than $50,000 approved for due diligence costs Nov. 9.