Imperial site decision stokes debate
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
The decision to cut the purchase of the Imperial Tobacco plant site from the 2016-17 city budget has generated concerns from city staff, real estate developers and downtown business owners.
Many voiced objections during Monday’s City Council meeting and at a meeting Tuesday of Dickinson Avenue stakeholders hosted by Uptown Greenville. The city had an option to purchase the property at $1.04 million, and that purchase was included in an initial spending plan.
A 4-1 City Council vote cut the purchase in order to lower the proposed property tax rate in the upcoming budget. City staff presented the updated budget draft at Monday’s meeting. A final vote on the budget is expected next month.
“I thought it was important to hold some additional conversation about this,” Assistant City Manager Merrill Flood said. “To discuss the implications of council’s action.”
Flood said the plant was built in the early 1900s and was in use until 1978. Plans of restoring the structure were halted in April 2008 when a fire destroyed much of the structure.
As a result, Flood said the property was cited for multiple code violations. The owner of the property claimed financial hardship as the reason for failure to clean up the site. In 2012, the city applied for a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate the site.
Flood said the city had to own the 7-acre property in order to qualify for the EPA grant. The city and the property owner entered an agreement in which Greenville purchased the property for $1 and retained ownership until the cleanup was completed.
Under the agreement, the city would pay $1.04 million after the cleanup was completed or the property would go back to the owner, Flood said.
Roger Johnson, manager of Greenville’s Office of Economic Development, said the city wanted to develop the property to serve as a visual and economic anchor for the redevelopment of west Greenville. Plans included:
• Listing the property for sale on Loopnet (Johnson said the city has received interest from three developers since the property was listed on the website);
• Using the center portion of the property to market the city’s virtual building program;
• Entering into a public/private partnership with developers to build a three- to four-story mixed-use project.
Johnson said the city purchased about $360,000 of adjacent properties during the past two years, which would give the city more than 9 acres of land to develop.
“Our office planned to use this site to improve the economic vitality of our community,” he said.
Johnson said the city’s plan to develop the property generated interest in the business community about redevelopment opportunities along the Dickinson Avenue corridor.
“There were some in the community that made investments based on the understanding of what the city planned to do in this particular area,” Johnson said.
Jim Blount, owner of Blount Properties in Greenville, was concerned about how the council’s decision could affect a multi-million-dollar development project on Dickinson Avenue and Reade Circle.
Sidewalk Development, a real estate development firm in Baltimore, is planning to build a mixed-use development that will include a 40-unit market rate apartment complex, a 60-unit student housing project and 20,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space.
Blount, a local partner in the Sidewalk Development project, said developers are ”very close” to an agreement with a well-known brewery out of Chapel Hill.
“The brewery will take up a large portion of the restaurant area,” Blount said. “It will include a rooftop terrace for dining that overlooks the area of Dickinson Avenue. ... It will be the first thing developed in Greenville like this,” he said.
Blount said portions of a planned 220-space parking lot for the development are on the Imperial site. The city entered into a contract with the developers to provide parking for the project. Blount asked the City Council during Monday’s meeting to amend the contract to ensure that parking is procured.
“The ball is rolling,” Blount said. “This is expensive stuff. ... We ask that you help keep the ball rolling.”
The council approved a motion to pursue potential options to amend the contract relating to the property to ensure that the city meets its contractual obligation to provide parking for the project.
The council also agreed to proceed with a complementary development analysis on the property, which will be conducted by the UNC School of Government to recruit developers for public-private partnership to build a mixed-use development.
Council members were divided during Monday’s meeting about whether the city should purchase and develop the Imperial site. District 4 Councilman Rick Smiley said the city’s involvement with the site has the potential to boost economic development in Greenville.
“Cities do this ... cities are successful doing this,” Smiley said. “Is there risk? Sure, but we have to show confidence in ourselves. This is done regularly in public-private partnerships, and it is done successfully.”
District 5 Councilman P.J. Connelly disagreed, saying the city should not continue to enter into real estate deals at the expense of Greenville’s taxpayers.
”Subsidizing that amount is the wrong initiative to take,” Connelly said. “We saw that in the theater downtown, where we subsidized over a half a million dollars ... We’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past,” he said.
District 3 Councilman McLean Godley agreed with Connelly that the purchase of the Imperial site is not in the city’s best interest.
“Going through this budget process, we’ve heard from people all over the city,” Godley said. “We’ve heard individuals say they want an increase to road funding ... we’ve heard individuals say they want more police officers ... we’ve heard other individuals say that want street light improvements.
“The one thing I haven’t heard is that they want to buy a warehouse,” he said.
At a Dickinson Avenue stakeholder meeting on Tuesday, Uptown Greenville Director Bianca Shoneman said the City Council’s decision to take the purchase of the Imperial site out of the budget potentially could stall economic growth in the downtown area.
“A lot of people in Greenville want the purchase of the Imperial site put back in the budget,” Shoneman said. ”I’m urging people to contact their representative on the City Council and let them know they want it put back in the budget.”
Contact Shannon Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org and 329-9579.