City resolves to apply for performance hall grant

A lengthly public hearing at the Henderson City Council’s “short” session ended last night with the Henderson City Council voting unanimously to both reopen the David Street Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and to apply for $1 million for the construction of a performance hall as part of the Embassy Block project.

City Manager Ray Griffin told council members that two items were before them yesterday evening: reopening the David Street project that he said was “mistakenly” closed on August 18, 2008, and the other was authorizing the filing of an amendment of that project to create a “sub-area” which would comprise the performance hall.

Saying that there were some “bumps in the road”, Griffin said that the process had to be gone through again to meet the procedural requirements necessary to submit the application to the state.

City Special Projects Manager Kathy Powell told council members that the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Division of Community Assistance (DCA) had notified the city of the error in closing the David Street project. She said that the DCA has said that only one public hearing was necessary to reopen the project and amend it.

As Powell gave the history of the performance hall project’s genesis, she indicated that the Vance County school system was instrumental in obtaining funding for the project. She said that although the 2000 census statistics showed that 50% of the population of Vance County is low-to-moderate income, falling short of a necessary 51% threshold, she discovered with the help of Vance County Schools’ public information officer Terri Hedrick that 71% of students qualify for free-or-reduced lunch.

Griffin told members that the proposed new agreement between the Embassy Foundation and the city is currently undergoing review at the DCA. He said that the agreement has eleven points, including the Foundation’s responsibility for raising funds for construction and its ownership, maintenance, and operation of the facility for the life of the facility. Griffin noted that the city could authorize sale or transfer of the property by the Foundation, but that it must be used as a performing arts center for at least five years and serve 51% of low-to-moderate income individuals.

Griffin said that if the facility is not completed after three years, the Foundation is responsible for the repayment of the grant to the DCA. He also said that if construction is not begun in two years, the Foundation will re-convey the property to the city at the city’s discretion.

According to Powell, $950,000 will be used for contruction and $50,000 for administrative costs. The total construction budget for the facility is estimated at $19.5 million.

Powell noted an area in the application set aside for public comments. She said she did not know if comments from the last public hearing, last night’s public hearing, or both would be included.

After Powell spoke, City Attorney John Zollicoffer addressed what he termed “alleged conflict of interest” he claimed were made against him by former Henderson City Council member Elissa Yount in The Daily Dispatch and “blogs” on Home in Henderson. He asked that the respective publications issue retractions.

Zollicoffer told the audience that he is not a director in the Embassy Foundation. He said he formed the corporation several years ago at the request of the city of Henderson and named himself as the initial director because the blank needed to be filled in on the application. He said that he has since resigned that position.

The city attorney went on to say that he has never represented any prior property owner in the Embassy block. He continued by saying that on December 18, 2006, he realized a potential conflict of interest between the city and the Embassy Foundation and advised the city of it. He said that he has not been involved in any negotiations since then, nor has he reviewed the current application. He said that he has not advised the city nor the Foundation on the application.

Zollicoffer is listed as an initial director along with Samuel M. Watkins, Jr. and Kathy Powell in documents on file with the North Carolina Secretary of State.

When Mayor Pete O’Geary opened the public hearing and called for those in opposition to the proposal to speak, Yount was the first at the podium. She noted that the North Carolina Secretary of State names Zollicoffer as a director and said that the late John Rose had told her that Zollicoffer had represented his family the sale of the Rose Gin property while Zollicoffer was city attorney.

She then went on to make the following remarks, asking if the North Carolina Local Government Commission has been notified that the $1.8 million in Embassy overages would not be paid back by the Embassy Foundation to the city. She said that the project would not improve living conditions on David Street, and she stressed the need for the city to apply for grants for critical needs.

When former Henderson City Council member Bobby Gupton spoke, he too noted to Zollicoffer that his name, along with that of Council member Bernard Alston was given as being on the board of directors of the Embassy Foundation. Gupton went on to remark that Henderson has “more pressing needs than a performance hall. He cited the failure of the performance hall in Roanoke Rapids and the cost of tickets at a similar facility in Durham as being $30 to $60 per ticket. He went on to accuse the council of spending money on “wanton whims of a few influential people”.

Gupton closed by asking that all 168 letters in opposition to the performance hall the he submitted during the last public hearing be included in the current application.

Henderson resident Lewis Edwards presented each council member with a letter that the then read into the record. He said that there is no evidence that [construction and operating] funds are in hand, and that there is no viable funding source for the project. He said that there is a conflict of interest because council members and the city attorney sit on the board of the Embassy Foundation. He requested that his letter become part of the record and the application, and that the records from the last public hearing be included in the current application.

Resident Cathy Ringley told members that she thinks the performance hall would be a “wonderful project for Henderson,” but offered the caveat that the project was conceived “in better economic times”.

“When the American economy gets a cold, Vance County get pneumonia,” she said.

She told members that delaying the project for two years would not harm it. She said that there are still opportunities in Vance County for the arts through churches and the 1,000 seat auditorium at Vance-Granville Community College.

Ringley questioned the revenue stream for the facility if it is being used by children in the school system.

Ringley noted that funding for the arts is at a 40-year low. Saying that the situation was not going to turn around in the next year, she suggested caution.

O’Geary then asked for those who would speak in favor of the resolution. The first to do so was Charlie John Smith, who commended the city council for “a united front”.

Smith called the facility at Vance-Granville “the most inadequate facility I’ve ever been in”. He spoke of the difficulty of bringing in shows for elementary students there because of bad acoustics. He said that the proposed center would bring in events that would educate and would bring together students from all races and religions by working in projects that everyone can believe in.

The Reverend Clarence Dale told council members that there is nothing positive for kids to do after school. He said that his daughter aspires to be an actor, but that she has to drive to Cary for acting classes.

Dale noted the success of the library, saying it leaves the impression of “Wow, I really want to learn.”

George Harvin spoke in favor of the center, saying that it has brought a “positive focus” on the city, and that it is “another education resource”. He noted that the library, an Embassy Foundation project, has been “remarkably successful”.

Real estate developer Dennis Tharrington told the council an anecdote about how the library impressed a man he termed “an industrial prospect”. He said that he is aware of the problems with the sewer system, but that [President-elect Barack Obama] is going to make sure that grant funds are out there.

Downtown Development Commission chair Jason Stewardson said that he was very excited about the performing arts hall. He said that the downtown has had more light shined on it in twelve months than in the last twelve years.

Resident Vernon Brown told members that they have a chance to bring something to Henderson.

Retired Mayor Robert G. “Chick” Young said he was expressing his hopes for the performance hall for the third time. He said that the project was a number one priority for Henderson for many years, and that citizens deserve a facility like it. He said it would be an economic stimulus for the downtown area and will restore vital activity. He called it “an opportunity to raise our ship to a higher level” and asked “who in the world would want to lower it?”

Embassy Foundation Chair Sam Watkins thanked the council for its time, quality of meeting, and unity. After reiterating the history of the Embassy Foundation, he said that the project would not be an easy thing to do.

Watkins told members that [we] have to believe and have to make an effort.

Watkins compared the proposed theater to Kerr Lake as an economic asset.

Richard Palamar told members that the grant for the performance center would not preclude money for other things. After criticizing the previous council for the dismissal of the lobbyists The Ferguson Group, Palamar said that the issue was a quality of life issue. He said that the library and live performance can give youth dreams. He said that the project was not for rich folks, but for people who have not been exposed to live performance of any kind.

After O’Geary closed the public hearing, member Mike Inscoe took the opportunity to note that he does not sit on the board of the Embassy Foundation. He also told members that the grant in questions requires no match from the city. He then asked if programs offered would be free or at minimal cost because it is a low-to-moderate income project.

Powell responded that the plan is to use yellow [school] buses for transportation of students, and that they would look at ways to every production would include those who can’t necessarily afford it. She said one way is to open up unfilled seats for free twenty minutes before curtain time to anyone with a student ID.

Member Lonnie Davis denied that the council held secret meetings.

Council member Garry Daeke said that all of his previous questions had been answered.

After remarking that the project was going to happen “one way or the other,” member Mike Rainey then moved to reopen the David Street CDBG project.