Mount Airy officials are proposing to spend $300,000 for property on Franklin Street — not the site there of the former Koozies building recently razed, as one might think due to the timing involved, but elsewhere on that roadway.
The location involved was identified Wednesday as 314 Franklin St., which is owned by Robert Kent Slate and spouse, Myra Garrett Slate.
That property, which now contains a house, is situated near the intersection of Franklin and Willow streets in the vicinity of the former Spencer’s textile mill property owned and gradually being redeveloped by the city government. That effort most recently has included plans for a Marriott hotel.
It is its proximity to the Spencer’s redevelopment area that has Mount Airy officials eyeing the 314 Franklin St. property.
They say that if acquired in the wake of an upcoming public hearing on the proposed purchase, it would be used for economic development and parking — which council members say would fill a big need in that regard.
“I think this is a great first step in helping to create some additional parking downtown,” Mayor Ron Niland said at a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners last week.
The move is seen as helping to stimulate and stabilize the existing development project along with increasing business prospects in the city, contributing to the creation of new jobs and otherwise providing public benefits.
During last week’s meeting, the board voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing required for the expenditure of public funds for the economic-development project. It will be conducted next Thursday during a 6 p.m. meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, when citizens are invited to weigh in on the matter.
The money for the property purchase would come from a $2 million state allocation that was announced in July to help Mount Airy with further redevelopment of the former Spencer’s textile property — targeting mostly outside improvements rather than building-related uses.
“Acquisition of this Franklin Street property will be paid out of that $2 million,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said during last week’s meeting, as opposed to municipal funds.
Site details withheld initially
Officials did not specify the address of the property targeted before, during or immediately after last week’s meeting.
“That will all be disclosed at the public hearing,” said City Attorney Hugh Campbell, to whom questions were directed on that issue.
In discussing whether not identifying the site defeated the purpose of the public hearing — with citizens invited to come to a meeting and comment on a proposal without really knowing what it was all about beforehand, Campbell initially defended that stance.
“Just because it’s an acquisition of property,” the city attorney explained.
Property negotiations can be kept private in early stages, but it is unusual for location information to be confidential once a matter reaches the public hearing stage.
That was the opinion this week of attorney Amanda Martin of the Raleigh law firm Stevens Martin Vaughn and Tadych, PLLC. Its services include working on behalf of the North Carolina Press Association and operating a related legal hotline.
“I think there is no basis to withhold the information,” advised Martin, who serves as legal counsel to traditional and social media, strategic and corporate communicators.
In saying she didn’t believe Mount Airy’s position is supported in public records law, Martin cited a court ruling involving a newspaper organization called Boney Publishers Inc. and the city of Burlington centering on such records.
This was a case decided by the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2004. Martin said that based on it, unless the location of property is among issues to be negotiated, “it is a matter of public record that must be disclosed in a public meeting.”
Martin added that it’s one thing to withhold certain information about economic-development incentives, such as giving tax breaks to companies agreeing to bring jobs, versus the purchase of property with the express goal that it will help economic development.
“Such as buying land downtown and putting a parking lot on it,” the attorney said as an example. “I think (this) is not entitled to any exemptions from the public records law,” due to the distinction of the latter compared to an incentives situation.
Campbell, the city attorney, agreed after further review of the issue, leading to the releasing of the property’s address early Wednesday evening.
“I am familiar with the Boney case and acknowledge the public purpose of promoting openness in the daily workings of public bodies and the policy consideration for disclosure and transparency,” he wrote in an email.
“I went back and reviewed the case … and would have to acknowledge my error in judgment,” Campbell added. “I really thought the identification of land targeted for economic development was confidential until the public hearing, but I was off base.”
Meanwhile, the former Koozies property — at 455 Franklin St. some distance away from 314 — is now an empty lot after the dilapidated building’s recent demolition, with no new use announced for it so far.