Sherlock Holmes might have called it The Case of the Phantom Agenda Item — but as it was, a bizarre occurrence at City Hall Thursday night involving a property offer left observers in a cloud of confusion.
The situation boiled down to a proposal before the municipal government to possibly acquire property at 455 Franklin St., the site of the former Koozies nightclub at the corner of Franklin and North South streets. In past years, the building was occupied by Quality Mills.
Ultimately, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 Thursday night (with Commissioner Shirley Brinkley absent) not to accept an offer to take over an option to buy that property from Ted Ashby, the person holding the option.
Ashby is a local banker who heads the group Mount Airy Downtown Inc., which has been concerned with developing an attractive “gateway” to the city’s central business district which includes the former Koozies building and adjoining sites.
These also are part of a section designated as a blighted area by the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission for revitalization purposes centered around the former Spencer’s industrial property nearby.
But in between the introduction of the option issue at Thursday’s meeting and the ultimate 4-0 vote was an air of mystery — including how it got on the council’s agenda in the first place. The matter was a late addition to the agenda, which had been disclosed Thursday morning, three days after the original agenda was released.
This mystery started when Ashby made his way to a podium in the front of the meeting room, and displayed a blank look about why he was there.
“I thought that was a closed-session issue,” said Ashby, who added that he wasn’t present to make any “request,” as had been stated regarding his appearance there. “I didn’t make the request — I made an offer.”
Ashby seemed to be of the impression that terms of the option to buy the Franklin Street property in question — including its $124,930 purchase price — were confidential, but this information actually had been publicly released earlier Thursday.
And after Ashby lobbied for a closed-session discussion, he was told this would not be the case.
“It was decided by the board that it needs to be (discussed) in open session,” Steve Yokeley, a city commissioner and interim mayor, told Ashby.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell agreed, saying that while property-acquisition matters may be discussed in private, this typically involves the material terms concerning a possible sale, which already had been made public at that point.
“In my view, it’s not a matter for closed session,” Campbell said.
Board members seemed as perplexed as Ashby’s concerning his appearance.
“He did not ask for this to be put on the agenda,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of Ashby, but Cawley added, “I think it (the property option) needs to be discussed.”
The board’s Dean Brown agreed, citing a desire to make sure the large audience in attendance was informed.
Yokeley would say after the meeting that once the item was placed on the agenda, Ashby was summoned to the meeting since the issue involved him.
“At least one of the commissioners asked that it be put on the agenda,” the mayor pro tem said. Yokeley said he was not that board member, and no one else would specify the person who initiated it, including City Manager Barbara Jones.
Cawley thought during the meeting that Yokeley requested the agenda change, but said he must have “got some bad information” on this.
Reasons for offer
Ashby said the reason he approached the city with the option-to-buy offer — which he obtained in July, according to city documents — was the Franklin Street property’s presence in the redevelopment area.
The banker said he thought that at some point, that site would be “integral” to the process.
“I did not do this for my gain,” Ashby explained. “I did it to help move the process along.”
The contract for the option to buy the property — from JHS Master Capital Inc. of Asheboro — was in his name “and I would assign it to the city,” Ashby said of the agreement that calls for a final decision on the purchase to be made in January.
“I made a $500 deposit and it’s a binding document,” he told city officials.
Ashby said that if the city wasn’t interested, “I’ll lose 500 dollars,” but he would accept that scenario.
Board rejects offer
Council members, however, offered several reasons for not taking over the option to buy the property for $124,930, which presumably would involve tearing down the building to make way for another use.
“That’s a scratch on the surface of what that facility will cost us,” Commissioner Brown said of demolition and other expenses for the structure, with which he expressed familiarity.
“And there’s not one thing in that building worth saving.”
Brown also said this would represent an unplanned expense. “We did not put that in the budget this year.”
Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who moved that a decision on the option be made Thursday night as opposed to the possibility of being tabled — which was suggested — also expressed concerns.
“I don’t want to get into the business of redevelopment,” said Armbrister, who added that tearing down buildings or related activities should be left to private enterprise. He also reminded that the commissioners had voted 4-1 two weeks earlier to restrict the redevelopment effort now under way to the city-owned Spencer’s complex.
Cawley said everyone assumes the former Koozies building should be torn down, but he would be more supportive of an alternative such as having it converted for housing.
At one point in the discussion, Ashby stressed the need for the gateway to downtown, which Cawley challenged.
“If people are coming in from somewhere else, it may not be the gateway,” he said of the West Pine Street/N.C. 89 corridor. Both Cawley and Armbrister pointed out that the U.S. 601/U.S. 52 intersection area was more of a gateway.
Cawley also mentioned the presence of public housing near Franklin Street which might discourage the gateway concept for that section.
Ashby responded that the public housing neighborhood is well-maintained and is one of the best such sites in the nation.
“Nevertheless,” Cawley said, it’s still a public housing development.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.