For sale: Less than a 1,000 square-foot vacant lot, prime location in the heart of Fairhope, utilities available, may have “great historical significance.” Price: $525,000, non-negotiable.
Sound like a steal? That’s debatable, even in a city where the median home price is $333,200, but it didn’t prevent the Fairhope City Council from chipping in half of the purchase price Monday night to secure the “clock corner” at the intersection of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street “for the preservation and enjoyment of all citizens.” The Fairhope Single Tax Colony (FSTC) will write the other $262,500 check.
The seller, developer and car dealership owner Matt Bowers, bought the corner and a neighboring building for $1.3 million a little more than a year ago and by late 2019, had gained the Council’s approval to build a three-story boutique hotel on the site.
But as Councilman Jay Robinson explained, Bowers remained responsive to citizen concerns about the building’s footprint and the elimination of what has been an open space for generations and although an initial purchase option did not pass beyond a Council executive session, when the FSTC offered to contribute, the price became more palatable.
“In August of last year, Mr. Bowers called me and offered to sell that corner piece to the city for $525,000 and that was a drop dead price, according to him,” he said. I brought that to the City Council and the mayor and there simply was not support for that purchase at that price. At that point we moved forward on his proposed hotel project and it passed … If not for some very involved citizens, it might have died at that point but through some discussions with Mr. Bowers, he expressed a willingness to sell … he understood that property really belonged to the citizens of Fairhope.”
But the purchase didn’t sit well with everyone. Councilman Robert Brown was the lone vote against it. His opinion was simply, “I just believe the city has a lot more things to spend money on rather than purchasing of that property.”
Resident Gary Gover asked the Council to table the resolution, pointing out that the price represented roughly $15 million per acre.
“It sounds like a very good deal for the owner and investor, but it’s not entirely clear this is a good deal for the taxpayer,” he said. Gover also wanted more detail on the historical significance of the property, noting the landmark “Fairhope” clock at the corner was only installed in 1989. Prior to that, it was part of a Ford dealership and livery, owned by the family of one of Fairhope’s founders. At one point, there were gas pumps. Allegedly, gas tanks are still buried beneath the courtyard.
But Councilman Jack Burrell and others waxed poetic about the historical significance of the corner, noting although it has long been private property, it has never been considered trespassing to gather there. An open space will allow citizens to continue to congregate on the corner for parades, the holiday Lighting of the Trees, Arts & Crafts and other events.
“It’s the epicenter of the city of Fairhope … absolute ground zero,” he said. “The hotel was not a bad use but if we look back in 50 years and if we had not purchased the property, we would deeply regret it.”
Resident Diane Thomas said the entire downtown is historic, with many century-old buildings preserved although some facades may have been altered.
“The landscaped courtyard we’re looking at … after hours and on special occasions, it served as probably the only large gathering space in downtown Fairhope and it has been a gathering space for over 100 years,” she said. “Your vote tonight can preserve that spot for the next 100 years.”
Former council members Dan Stankoski and Debbie Quinn also spoke in favor of the purchase.
Treasurer Kim Creech explained the expense would be drawn from the Municipal Capital Improvement Fund, which is funded annually from state oil and gas royalties. Prior to the purchase, the fund had a balance of around $700,000. With the absence of bank financing, she said no appraisal was necessary.
Robinson said the boutique hotel as designed is hereby off the table, but “Mr. Bowers is 100 percent in favor of working with the city on whatever vision or involvement we want to have with the remaining building that sits adjacent to this piece of property. He’s open to discussion and very eager to be involved to the extent he can be beneficial to the city in any way. But ultimately what I was told today from Mr. Bowers was he didn’t feel it was appropriate to hold up this purchase while he was forced to listen to the city discuss what was the best use of his property. And I don’t know any other way to say it than that.”
Mayor Karin Wilson said she sought various other “very creative” solutions for the property, but a lack of communication from the council resulted in a “loss of opportunity to do something even better.”
“What the city has been doing, we buy property and we do nothing with it,” she said. Other recent purchases have been 114 acres on the corner of County Roads 32 and 13 for future park facilities for $2.65 million; the Fairhope K-1 Center, an adjacent park and the Nix Center on Bayou Drive for $2.5 million; and the “Dyas Triangle” at the north entrance to the city as part as an $8.75 million legal settlement. “To me, that’s a cycle that can’t continue. I understand this is an important piece of property and has a lot of sentimental value, but have we ever used it for its highest purpose? Do we have a plan afterwards? Those are the things I like to think about … the whole picture.”
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