Zebulon makes rejection of former town hall offer official

amoody@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2014 

— Commissioners officially rejected the first offer on Zebulon’s former town hall property on Monday.

Prospective buyers Mark Cronk, Blake Lewis, Glenn Lewis and Dallas Pearce had wanted to use the 100 N. Arendell Ave. space to house an arts center, with hopes of bringing United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County programming to eastern Wake County.

The town board informally rejected the group’s offer of $90,000 offer in private the week after it was made March 3. The town’s asking price is $145,000.

Town Manager Rick Hardin said the decision would not be final until the board took it to a vote Monday. However, the prospective buyers were notified by the real estate agent listing the property the offer was declined prior to the meeting.

Mayor Bob Matheny remarked on the decision to poll commissioners privately before the offer was addressed at a public meeting.

“If the bid process was handled wrong, I apologize for that,” Matheny said. “There was no intent to hide or deceive anyone. It was only an attempt to give a quick response … and to give good customer service because we were a month away from the next meeting.”

Most all of the town board was familiar with the investors and their intended use of the property when asked to make an initial decision in mid-March. First-year commissioner Glenn York, however, said he was not aware of the intended use when he made his unofficial decision.

York had said he would “definitely be more prone to accept a lower offer, knowing we would get some sort of return on it,” prior to Monday’s meeting. But at the meeting, he stuck with his initial stance and seconded the motion to ax the offer.

“It was basically taking into consideration the other town properties,” York said after the meeting. “I felt like it would be doing the other property owners in downtown an injustice to sell it for so low.”

“There’s no organization”

During the meeting, Matheny listed several reasons he was opposed to the offer – most revolving around wanting to make smart decisions with the residents’ asset at stake.

The town board has long cited its promise to taxpayers to sell the properties it vacated in 2009 and use proceeds to help pay off the bond that paid for the purchase and renovation of the current town facilities.

“You’re asking us to sell the property $170,000 below appraised value and $55,000 below the asking price,” Matheny said, addressing the investors. “When we dropped the price to ($145,000), we considered the upfit cost in there.”

The investors previously indicated the offer was made lower than the asking price to cancel out the estimated $50,000 cost of getting the property ready to house a state-of-the-art arts center.

Matheny also argued selling the property at such a reduced price would negatively affect the value of other downtown properties and that the offer was made by four individuals, not an established arts entity. He also said accepting the low offer would open the door for any other buyer to purchase the building at a reduced price, since an upset bid process would be implemented.

“There’s no organization, no nonprofit, no LLC, just a partnership,” he said. “No business plan that we’ve seen, no codified agreement with United Arts (Council) or any other group, and they’ve stated that if they cannot get an arts council organized then they will use the building for other purposes.”

A final plea

The meeting drew a larger-than-usual audience. It included the four investors, a few members of the downtown business community and listing agent Scott Hadley of NAI Carolantic.

Hadley, Glenn Lewis and Pearce spoke during a public comment period to start the meeting.

Hadley’s comments foreshadowed Matheny’s remarks on selling the property at a reduced price and what the consequences may be if something fell through with the United Arts Council. The prospective buyers made one final plea to commissioners.

“Most of you know, even if you don’t work here, the distressed situation of vacant buildings downtown,” Pearce said. “I would like to see that change, and I think without a shadow of a doubt something like an arts (center) would be a creative way to get true revitalization started.”

Glenn Lewis made his comments in the form of a challenge to town leaders. He said he was concerned the board acted quickly to reject the offer.

“How many times is opportunity knocking on your door that get turned away real quickly, and they never come back?” Lewis asked. “There are many times that your biggest catches they start with a little nibble.

“We, the people, ask you as our town board that when opportunity comes knocking, please make an effort to do some research, investigate and find out if it would be something that would be good for the town.”

No budging on board

Commissioner Don Bumgarner responded to Lewis’ remarks, saying the board put plenty of effort into its decision.

“I think without a question we would be very poor stewards of the town’s money if we accepted a bid of this amount when in fact we have worried over this, studied over this situation and tried to weigh every aspect of it,” Bumgarner said before making a motion to reject the offer.

Commissioner Dale Beck said none of the board members are against bringing an arts center to town. He, too, justified his decision as one made in the best interest of the residents.

“That building belongs to the citizens of Zebulon,” Beck said. “And if we sell it at a price that hurts the citizens, as far as the value of the town and that type of thing, I think we’re doing a disservice.”

Moody: 919-829-4806; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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