That is $10,000 less than the asking price for the city-owned site that has been a thorny issue for the municipal government for more than a year, but officials said Thursday they will give serious consideration to the offer.
After an often-emotional community debate on whether to preserve a 1920s-era house on the land, or demolish it to provide more parking space for Reeves Community Center nearby, officials decided in September to have a state preservation group market the property.
That led up to a presentation Thursday night at a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting by Mike Stout of Preservation North Carolina and potential buyer Brenda Cooke of McKinney Road, when the $37,500 offer was officially tendered.
“Since we met in September (and established the $47,500 asking price), the economy has tumbled and house prices have fallen across the country,” Stout told city officials. The regional director of Preservation North Carolina, which works to protect and promote buildings, landscapes and sites important to the state’s heritage, said he thought that price was justified in light of numerous repairs facing the house’s next owner.
“All the systems need to be replaced in the house,” Stout said, mentioning heating and other units and citing effects of vandalism and asbestos. If torn down, the city would encounter the demolition expense as well as see space taken up in the local landfill, he added.
But Stout said that selling the 305 Cherry St. house to Cooke would allow it to be renovated and have its tax value, which he said is less than the $37,500 offer, increased by the improvements she plans. In addition, the project has spurred interest in two other properties on Cherry Street, the old Baird mansion next door and the Ashby house across the street.
“The sale and restoration of this home will preserve an important part of Mount Airy,” Stout said, adding that Cooke’s is the only offer that has been made on the property.
For her part, Cooke says her interest in preserving and living in the house “was a matter of love at first sight.”
The prospective buyer, who also addressed the commissioners Thursday night about her plans, explained that she’s been tracking the situation with the house since its story first surfaced and has visited it many times in recent months as her interest grew.
“I want to downsize,” Cooke told city leaders, citing the presence of a large yard, barn and other features that require much upkeep at her present residence. “I want to move to the city limits,” she added, and have a home with a “postage-stamp yard.”
Coupled with that is her interest in restoring old structures, which has included a farmhouse in Ararat, Va., among others. “I am willing to commit up to $150,000 to improve this property for my use,” the local woman said.
She also referred to the rundown condition of the house, but said she has faced the same scenario with other projects, including renovations to a condominium site she owns at Myrtle Beach, S.C. “That has never scared me off,” Cooke said. She pledged to make the house “an asset to the street.”
In addition to offering less than the price set in September, Cooke said that her purchase also would be contingent on gaining full access to the home’s driveway. A surveyor recently discovered that the property line runs through the center of the driveway. That is an issue because buses transporting students to the community center back up to the dining room window of the structure, Cooke said.
Board members seemed receptive Thursday night to selling the home to her, although Mayor Jack Loftis said several legal issues will need to be ironed out first. “We would have to rely on our attorney,” Loftis said.
Commissioner Todd Harris told Cooke that as the owner of an older home himself, “I applaud and appreciate your passion.
“I think that $37,500 is a very reasonable and generous offer,” Harris added. “But I do want this driveway situation clarified.”
Others also spoke in favor of the transaction, including Commissioner Dean Brown, a perennial supporter of saving the house from demolition. “You’ve said the things I wanted said about fixing this house.”
The consensus among city officials Thursday night was that the deal receive legal and other scrutiny in upcoming days to allow the matter to be placed on the agenda for the commissioners’ next meeting on Feb. 19.
About the only disparaging remarks came from Commissioner Jon Cawley, who served on the RCC governing board when the property was initially acquired to serve needs of the community center. Cawley, in hinting that he might vote against the sale, said he was concerned about the city earlier declaring the site as surplus property as well as selling it for less than what was specified last fall.
However, City Attorney Hugh Campbell said it wouldn’t pose a legal problem if the board decided to ratchet down the amount. “It would just be a matter of a new resolution (changing the price),” Campbell said.
Since the non-profit state organization is involved, the city will not have to obtain upset bids for the property, which would be the case if the municipality handled the sale. An earlier upset bid process proved unsuccessful.
Preservation North Carolina has been operating under a six-month option to buy the house while it attempts to market the site, with the purchase including restrictive covenants being placed on the property to maintain its architectural value.
If a sale is approved, the property is to be transferred to the buyer and the municipality will receive the money, with no real estate commission required.
Stout said Thursday that Cooke is prepared to proceed with the cash sale in as little as 30 days.
Former Official Speaks
Also Thursday night, a former member of the city board criticized cuts in funding to outside agencies such as the local library while also blasting recent forced annexations by the city.
“Why are the outside agencies the first to be cut?” asked Tom Bagnal, who resigned as a North Ward commissioner last summer, but has maintained his membership on the library’s governing board. Other agencies that get city funding include the Surry Arts Council, Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and others.
The city budgeted a total of $206,000 for all six agencies involved, Bagnal said. “None of the agencies have received their support from the city,” the former official said during a public-comment portion of Thursday’s meeting when citizens can speak on any topic.
He said the situation has been especially hard on the library, which has had to juggle expenses to avoid cutting services. The library increasingly has become a key resource to local citizens, including those who are using it to find employment, according to Bagnal, and is important to the culture of the community.
“The traffic at our library is at an all-time high,” he said.
Meanwhile, the municipality has managed to find money for certain big-ticket items and made other decisions such as forced annexation of the Cross Creek and other communities. Such actions have compromised its financial health due to having to supply the related utility infrastructure. A city that was once on firm financial footing now finds itself in “an ocean of debt,” Bagnal said.
“It’s no secret I voted against forced annexation,” he continued, pointing out that big cities such as Charlotte somehow have avoided these moves.
“We couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it,” Bagnal added, citing the “storm clouds of NAFTA” and the weakening economy.
North Carolina’s annexation laws recently have come under fire for giving municipalities too much leeway in bringing residents in against their will. Bagnal said he saw Mount Airy’s action as violating “our sense of freedom.”
“We made the colossal mistake of equating legal with right,” the ex-commissioner said.
Bagnal also referred to other major expenses eyed recently by the city, including $800,000 for a new aerial truck for the fire department. That expenditure has resurfaced from time to time, and most recently was put on hold until the city is in better financial shape.
“The new ladder fire truck keeps coming back like a broke brother-in-law,” Bagnal commented.
Some board members told Bagnal Thursday night that they would work to make sure the library gets properly funded, mentioning its importance to citizens.
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.