Lenoir agrees to help buy freight facility

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 10:02 AM

The Lenoir City Council voted Tuesday night in favor of an agreement to purchase, along with Caldwell County, a freight-transfer station and several acres of surrounding land.

So Linda Haas of Lakeview Terrace Circle, a vocal critic of the deal whose sharply worded questions last month prompted the council to postpone consideration of the agreement, failed to stop the deal.

But her questions forced the kind of thorough explanation at a public meeting that she and her 30 or so supporters Tuesday night felt they had never received — not they thought the explanation adequately answered their questions.

The vote, 5-2, effectively settles official discussion about the arrangement in which the city and county essentially would subsidize the operation of the so-called transload facility, where rail shipments are transferred to and from trucks running to plants formerly serviced by a section of rail that the county abandoned in the 2007 deal to lure Google’s data center to the area.

For councilman Ron Stillwell, who along with Mayor Pro Tem T.J. Rohr voted against the purchase agreement, one “gray area” that bothers him is the role of the city as a co-owner of the property and certain conditions of the lease agreement, under which lease payments on the property will be funneled to the Bank of Granite to settle past debt of the current owner, Robinson Lumber Company, rather than to the city and county.

“In light of some questions I have about the lease agreement,” Stillwell said, “I think we’re not ready” to cast a vote.

But others said that while such an arrangement is not ideal, council members had been told several times it was required to get the bank to sign off on the purchase and release a lien on the property. They said a more limited option suggested by Haas — for the city and county to buy only the portion of the property directly needed for the transload operation — was opposed by the bank.

see FREIGHT/page a3

Councilman Todd Perdue questioned the role of government in supervising a private business.

“If it’s valuable to us, it should be valuable to someone else,” he said. “I just don’t like the city being in the business.”

But for others, including Councilman Ben Willis, the deal represented jobs that could be lost if the purchase wasn’t approved, as well as the prospect of economic growth if it was.

“We need to protect the investment that we have,” said Willis, referring to $1.3 million in federal, state and local money that was spent to set up the transload facility. He said he believes the facility could lead companies to invest in the area.

Support for the lease agreement, in which the city and county will spend about $1 million to acquire more than 10 acres along U.S. 321-A, has largely centered on what Mayor Joe Gibbons and others termed a commitment by the city and county to ensure the continuation of service from a railroad spur on which several companies, including Sealed Air, Boone Lumber and New River Building Supply, had come to rely.

Gibbons said he was aware the deal “was not going to make everyone happy.”

That certainly was the case for Haas, who had hoped to again convinced the council postpone action on the deal, which she maintains will be a long-term loser for local taxpayers.

“And then, before you know it,” she said, “our taxes are going to go up – and that’s not right.”

Still, “my intentions, I think, are good,” added Haas, reiterating that she does not harbor animosity toward the city, county or Robinson Lumber, to which her father, a sawmiller, used to sell lumber.

Haas, who has spent the past year researching conditions of the agreement, has in recent weeks expressed concern over the deal to her family, friends and neighbors.

Among them was April Cox, whose husband, Roger, is a nephew of Haas. 

She said she hoped the council would continue to discuss the lease agreement, the terms of which she and others said are convoluted.

Even so, said Cox, who made the drive from Hudson, “I wonder if there would’ve been this much discussion about it” if it weren’t for the perserverance of Haas. “I don’t think so.”