In a special called meeting last week, the Fairhope City Council voted unanimously to purchase the old K-1 Center and two other properties from the Baldwin County Board of Education at a cost of $4 million, but the future of the K-1 site is still unclear following disagreements on what the site should be used for between the council and Mayor Karin Wilson.
Before the meeting
In a Sept. 3 post on her official Facebook page, Wilson accused the council of rushing forward with the decision to purchase the property without proper public feedback.
“I have communicated with Council President Burrell about the K-1 Center property purchase and taking this opportunity to discuss all property owned by BCBE in our City (Nix Center land, K-1 ‘Fairhoper’s’ Park and the Alternative School). I expressed to him the importance of transparency with all possibilities for the best use of the K-1 property and how its future use needs to be communicated with all stakeholders. There should also be a feasibility study done. These decisions have long lasting effects on our City and should not be rushed. We should not repeat past mistakes.
This is why I was surprised to receive the notice at 5:05pm on Friday, before the long Labor Day weekend, when people were busy getting ready to spend time with their families and not concerned with City business, about a Special Called City Council meeting to approve a ‘Resolution to Authorize the Council President to execute a Real Estate Purchase Agreement for properties owned by the Baldwin County Board of Education’ for Tuesday 4pm.
“Rushing the city into real estate deals without public participation and input by stakeholders is an inappropriate way to conduct business. Fairhope citizens are unaware of the developments concerning these properties and alternate opportunities. If the rest of Council truly wants to be transparent and make proper decisions, they will cancel this meeting and make certain all facts are presented in a public forum before we move forward on spending millions of tax dollars.”
In response to Wilson’s post, Councilman Jimmy Conyers posted the following on his official Facebook page on Sept. 4:
“With recent activity regarding the K-1 Center and a pending Council vote to enter into a contract to purchase property from the Baldwin County Board of Education, I felt that I should address some of the concerns regarding lack of transparency and public input.
“Since being elected, there have been discussions regarding the City acquiring the K-1 Center from BCBOE. Several months ago the Council authorized the Council President to negotiate the purchase of said property from the BCBOE. Negotiations began somewhat slowly as the City tried to determine whether BCBOE or State owned the property and tried to make a case that it should be given to us rather than buying it (not going to happen). During that process we were approached by Baldwin County EDA with an opportunity to apply for a grant to help shoulder the financial burden of acquisition and renovation. About 5-6 weeks ago we received word that other parties were interested in acquiring the K-1 Center for possible development. This created a greater sense of urgency to work out a deal with BCBOE and negotiations became more persistent. We submitted a Letter of Intent approximately 3 weeks ago to the BCBOE outlining proposed terms for the purchase of the K-1 Center.
“At this time I met with Dean Mosher, who informed me that he had been working with a developer from Birmingham for months to purchase the property and construct a boutique hotel. Within an hour of the conclusion of that meeting I was contacted by Paul Ripp, who also lobbied strongly for the boutique hotel. Other sites proposed to the same developer, possibly for the same project, include the Triangle and City Hall / Civic Center, neither of which are for sale.
“I had an opportunity to meet this past Friday with Mr. Mosher, the developer, and several others to discuss the K-1 Center. We had a good, open conversation, somewhat tense at times, but only due to strong opinions on the issue at hand. Isn’t that what’s missing in our country, state, and city right now? The ability to sit down and communicate face to face with the opposing point of view, to disagree, to argue, and then shake hands when it’s over.
“I could probably provide a solid argument for or against either proposal. The position I have advocated for is to preserve the K-1 Center in some capacity, to keep the Pelican’s Nest, to allow FEEF to implement their vision for STEAM Center, and to provide a space to further foster an entrepreneurial environment in Fairhope. I have heard from those who want to preserve the historic building, those that want to prevent additional development, but mostly I have heard from citizens who have stated that there is an agreement in place that states this property will always be maintained with an educational component.
“There have been calls for more transparency and better communication on this issue and I understand the frustration on behalf of the citizens. However, it would have been extremely difficult to negotiate this purchase publicly, especially when we knew other interested parties are involved. Additionally, there are aspects of the proposal that we have kept quiet due to the competitive nature of the grant. Also, keep in mind the Council President was authorized months ago to negotiate this contract, the first I heard about the boutique hotel was a few weeks ago. There will be a due diligence period and I personally would feel better once this property is under contract. I am strongly of the opinion that the City should own and control this property. And, had we not taken action, how can we be sure this would not have sold to another party? I appreciate the patience and willingness of the BCBOE to work with the City of Fairhope to find common ground on this matter.
“In conclusion, we may have many differing opinions and disagreements, but I believe all involved only want what they feel is best for Fairhope.”
Residents speak out during special called meeting
Several dozen residents were in attendance for the noon special called meeting and expressed their views on what should be done with the property, though all agreed the city should move forward with the purchase.
“We must buy this property now,” resident Bob Riggs said. “We have an offer, and we’ve examined that offer. We don’t know what the future will hold, but the stars are aligned today for us to move forward with purchasing this property.”
Dean Mosher, a local artist and vocal supporter of Wilson, said he had been working with a developer to create a plan to purchase the K-1 Center site and use it to create a boutique hotel and paid parking structure.
“The highest and best use should be the one most considered,” Mosher said. “There should be public debates about what should be considered.”
Mosher said he had been working for months the developer, Capstone, to propose the boutique hotel and paid parking lot project for the site and he denied that Wilson had instructed him to move forward with those talks.
“The mayor asked me not to get involved with the K-1 Center since the beginning,” Mosher said. “I’ve done this completely on my own.”
Mosher said the plan presented by Capstone would allow the purchase of the property “without costing the taxpayers a dime” and would still allow the facade to potentially be used.
Several citizens spoke out in opposition to using the K-1 site for a hotel/parking structure.
“There are many sites where a boutique hotel can locate, but this site has an educational history to it,” resident Jim Kellan said.
“Take the K-1 Center and do what we should do for the children,” another resident said. “Take the company that wants to build a hotel and introduce them to some other property around here.”
Almost all of the residents who spoke said they wanted to see the property continue to have an educational component, giving their support to a proposition made by the Fairhope Educational Enrichment Foundation that would allow for a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program to be housed on site.
Wilson spoke during the mayoral comments portion of the meeting and said she has always been a strong proponent of the city owning the K-1 property, despite rumors Wilson alluded to.
“I think there are a lot of rumors that happen once you try to make sure the public is involved and has input,” Wilson said to Council President Jack Burrell. “There was no public input that was wanted before this and there was no public input that was wanted after the vote either because that’s what you told me. I’m satisfied today that everyone is here and saying what they want. That’s how we achieve the absolute best. I only want what is best for this city. Any rumors that you hear, I want you to call me and get the facts.”
Wilson said the rumors she alleged were simply the result of more politics in the city.
“It’s politics, and believe me I hate it,” Wilson said. “But, no one sincerely wants more for this community and this particular asset than me.”
Wilson said she and other family members attended the K-1 Center as students and she felt the site has a special place in her heart and the hearts of many local residents. She called for a feasibility study to determine what the best uses might be for the property.
“I think this is a wonderful opportunity to do everything we want to do because all of these things are important to everyone,” Wilson said. “I absolutely support FEEF, definitely support Hatch, but I also support being able to have an economic impact that will not drain our coffers.”
Council comments and proposal
Burrell outlined his proposed vision for the property during the council comments portion of the meeting, which would include the FEEF STEAM Center, a possible performing arts center and the inclusion of the Hatch Entrepreneurial Development partnership with the University of Alabama.
Through the partnership with Hatch, Burrell said the city could receive a $6.1 million grant that would offset a large amount of the purchase price and renovation costs for the site.
“The Hatch grant would be $6.1 million, which would cover the purchase of the land and most, if not all, of the renovation to the existing K-1 Center, less the performing arts center,” Burrell said. “I’ve pitched this to many people and many different organizations around town and the feedback has been extremely positive. I think we’re doing good financially as a city; what we need right now is quality of life.”
Councilman Jay Robinson said he felt the meeting should be a happy occasion for the city.
“This is a huge win for the city of Fairhope,” Robinson said. “To have the opportunity to preserve what is considered to be a historic piece of this community but to also be able to inspire and educate our rising generations is important.”
Robinson said he hoped the council would move forward with the property as some sort of education center.
“I keep hearing the phrase ‘best use’ used, but sometimes the most financially rewarding option is not the same as best use,” Robinson said. “Parks don’t generate a lot of money, but they’re the staple of our community and help make us what we are.”
Robinson added that the purchase also brought the Nix Center and the Fairhoper’s Park across the street from the K-1 Center under city ownership, as both of those properties were also owned by the BCBE.
Conyers said he liked the idea of partnering with Hatch for help with the site, as well as the FEEF STEAM Center proposal.
“To go from kindergarten through high school and into college and even the beginning of entrepreneurial opportunities all on the same facility would be amazing,” Conyers said. “This would generate some revenue and also be something very special for the City of Fairhope.”
Burrell added that he was offended by Wilson’s online remarks that the council was trying to rush through a special meeting.
“You said it’s not political, but you sent a letter out just bashing me concerning the special meeting and accused me of not being very transparent,” Burrell said.
Burrell went through the timeline of public meetings where the K-1 Center had been discussed publicly, including the Feb. 15 meeting when the council authorized him to negotiate the purchase of the property and the Aug. 27 meeting when the council authorized to help with matching funds for the possible $6.1 million Hatch grant.
Burrell also spoke about an Aug. 13 meeting between Wilson, city staff, Lee Lawson and himself about the terms of purchase agreement and the possibility of the Hatch grant.
“I have a hard time understanding how someone could say that was not transparent,” Burrell said. “Today was just more about purchasing the property, which is what I was authorized to do by this council.”
Following the meeting, Burrell gave members of the media and Wilson a list of four questions he had intended to ask Wilson about the property and rumors surrounding the proposed boutique hotel project.
Those questions to Wilson were:
“In the letter you released over the holiday were you trying to impede the council’s efforts to purchase this property? Did you write the letter, or were city resources used to write the letter?
“Which, if any, private citizens and staff have you used to market properties owned by the city of Fairhope, specifically the property known as the Triangle, the Civic Center, and property under consideration to be purchased by the City of Fairhope, namely the property known as the K-1 Center? What has been your involvement?
“Are city staff and city resources being used outside their job descriptions or stated purposes? It is noted that a city staffer mentioned a ‘boutique hotel’ during the council meeting held on Aug. 23. That did not escape the Council’s attention.
“Did you and a city staffer not mention, almost lobbying, to place a hotel on the K-1 property to myself and the representative from BCEDA in the meeting held in your office on August 13?”
As of press deadline, Wilson had not yet responded to Burrell’s questions.
The purchase agreement for the property included a clause the property was required to be used for a public purpose for at least 15 years or it would revert back to the BCBE.
At closing, the City will pay $2.5 million and an additional $300,000 per year for the following five years. The $300,000 per year will be filtered back into the Fairhope feeder pattern schools through FEEF.
Economic comparisons of proposals
A local blogger posted an economic projection for the hotel that factored a possible $36 to $42 million economic impact and 100-plus jobs for the boutique hotel and parking project, though the source of the projections and methodology behind the projections is unknown.
Economic projections from the University of Alabama’s Director of Technology Transfer Richard Swatlowski said there could be a influx of jobs from the proposed Hatch Center.
“It is assumed that the Hatch will generate 30 to 35 jobs annually at an average salary of $50,000,” Swatloski wrote. “This results in a projected 44 new jobs annually (both direct and indirect) … The annual projected payroll may range from $1.5 million to $2 million annually.”
Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, said growing entrepreneurial companies has always been a part of our strategy and Hatch now provides the place and hub to implement and deliver on that strategy. According to Lawson, Hatch will be viable because of its channeled focus and partnership with UA, which he said is particularly important for a region that doesn’t have a heavy economic development footprint from a four-year university.
“Most successful entrepreneurial development centers have a four-year university cemented in the community to help support their entrepreneurial centers,” Lawson said. “Having the University of Alabama as our partner gives us the resources, brainpower and support we have been looking for a successful entrepreneurial development center make-up to grow these types of companies in our community.”
Lawson said Baldwin County has a cluster of software development firms, information technology companies and small Internet-based companies that are growing and evolving. He expects Hatch to give similar startups a boost, and also startups that will use hi-tech means to take low-tech products to market.