The Fairhope City Council will hold a special called meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at noon to approve a purchase agreement with the Baldwin County Board of Education for the vacant former K-1 building on Church Street downtown.
The city sent notice of the meeting at 5:05 p.m. Aug. 31, the Friday before Labor Day, effectively four days before the meeting but only 23 “weekday” hours before the meeting was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday. State statute requires 24 hours’ notice unless there is an emergency declaration.
City Council President Jack Burrell said early Tuesday he had originally scheduled the meeting for 5:30 p.m., after a budget workshop hosted by Mayor Karin Wilson, but add-ons to the budget agenda eliminated that window of opportunity. Instead, he moved the special meeting ahead to 4 p.m. Around noon on Tuesday, the meeting was rescheduled to Wednesday due to the hurricane warning in effect.
Defending the timeline, Burrell said “the urgency of the sale” necessitated the hasty meeting and the agreement would garner more media attention if it were placed on a special meeting agenda.
“I wanted to quash rumors going around that a developer was interested in the property to build a hotel,” Burrell said, calling the city’s potential acquisition of the property “a historic moment.”
Earlier Tuesday, Councilman Jimmy Conyers explained in a Facebook post that while the council had been negotiating with the school board, he learned “other parties were interested in acquiring the K-1 Center for possible development” — in particular a “developer from Birmingham” aiming to construct a “boutique hotel.”
While terms of the agreement have not been disclosed, Burrell said they were “very favorable” to the city. Funding would be provided by a $6.1 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, which would require a $1.22 million match from the city.
Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance (EDA), told the City Council Aug. 27 the money was part of a $587 million disaster declaration tied to the 2017 hurricane season allowing Gulf Coast states to apply for funds to improve “economic resilience.”
Even though Alabama was not significantly affected by the storms, it was included in disaster declarations due to Hurricane Nate and therefore eligible for the funds.
Recently, the EDA incorporated Hatch Fairhope as a nonprofit to provide “Baldwin County’s new and existing tech-based startups with a place to learn and grow while fostering entrepreneurial culture and developing a resource ecosystem.” Hatch is currently renting space in Fairhope’s Compass Bank building, but the purchase agreement would move the organization to the K-1 Center.
“Hatch is the only opportunity we have to leverage these funds,” Lawson told the council, calling the emerging nonprofit a “job creator” and the K-1 Center sale a “job-creating project.”
Tuesday, Lawson said Hatch is only just beginning to form partnerships with potential entreprenuers, but the grant allows for “purchase and renovations of brick and mortar” and the purchase agreement tentatively would allow Hatch to occupy 100 percent of the K1 Center’s main building for office and lab space.
An economic impact analysis fromThe University of Alabama suggested in the next five years, Hatch would provide “266 new and indirect jobs with an estimated payroll of $16.8 million and total sales/output revenue for Fairhope of $33.65 million.”
Burrell said while the grant requires a “job-creating” use like Hatch could provide, it would not preclude other parts of the property from being available for other uses. Among the ideas that have been suggested by the City Council are a performing arts center and STEAM education lab.
Meanwhile, Mayor Wilson urged the council to stall, noting the city’s general fund budget is still subsidized by utilities revenue and there has been little citizen input on the proposal.
“The main concern is communication and planning behind closed doors without public participation,” Wilson wrote Tuesday morning. “The city cannot afford another long-term subsidy when we operate at a deficit without the help from utility funding … There are endless possibilities to consider and there is no rush to decide as it is ultimately the council’s decision on zoning and what ends up there. The property can remain in the city’s name with a private or nonprofit partnership or seek out a developer to purchase and build a collaborative vision-based plan where the city collects property taxes. Bottom line, taxpayers should have a say and a feasibility study done so we don’t end up with the same scenario as the airport authority land purchase 10 years ago.”
Conyers wrote that he understood the calls for better transparency and communication, but the negotiations would have been “extremely difficult” to conduct publicly because of competing offers on the property and bids for the grant money.
“There will be a due diligence period and I personally would feel better once this property is under contract,” he wrote. “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?”
The Fairhope K-1 Center, most recently an early education school but previously the city’s first high school, was abandoned in 2011 by the Baldwin County School System, which cited space concerns and maintenance costs. Built in the 1920s, it remains one of Fairhope’s most recognizable buildings on a prime parcel of downtown property.
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