“We’re very disappointed with the actions of the board. I made plans to attend the November meeting and was hoping to discuss our offer with them in person. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, only a half dozen indicated they were opposed to this partnership, and three of them were the board members who voted against it. We want to thank the Hope Mills community for the generous support and encouragement they’ve provided. But now it’s time to refocus our efforts elsewhere.”
Statement from Tim Byrom, Board president, Lone Survivor Foundation
On October 8th, the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners voted against selling a piece of land to the Lone Survivor Foundation (LSF). LSF established a facility in Crystal Beach Texas and provides rehabilitation retreats to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma. More than 30% of the veterans they treated came from the southeast, so they’ve been scouting potential sites for a second retreat facility for more than a year.
Terry Jung, who served as Executive Director for LSF until stepping down recently, presented the idea to the board in a closed session on June 4th. Five of the six board members were overwhelmingly in favor of the project. Commissioner Mike Mitchell was the only board member who showed hesitation. On June 5th the board directed town staff to contact LSF and let them know they were excited to receive an official offer. But on June 11th when the board met again, three of the commissioners were suddenly opposed to the idea and voted to deny the offer.
At a July 23rd board meeting, Terry Jung spoke to the board again. Members of the audience were so moved by his comments and so enraged by the board’s actions, they signed up to speak on behalf of LSF. Commissioner Jessie Bellflowers made a motion to hold a public hearing and one was scheduled for late August. But on August 1st the board voted to cancel that hearing until they’d seen the results of a comprehensive parks and recreation study. Officially they were waiting to know what the study indicated the town should do with the land LSF wanted to purchase.
The results of that study were presented to the board on October 1st by Rachel Cotter, project manager for McAdams Group. The study indicated the municipality has more than enough land for current and future development. In fact, they have enough to cover the 10-year plan and an additional 60 acres. Cotter’s presentation also indicated municipalities often choose to partner with outside organizations, such as LSF, to offset the costs of funding development projects. But the plan does not identify specific parcels of land or indicate what should be built on them.
While the results should have cleared the path for LSF’s purchase, it did not. Commissioner Meg Larson blasted McAdams Group during the October 8th meeting. She indicated the study had been a waste of money and the information obtained could have been found in a Google search. Interestingly, Larson made a similar claim several months ago when Public Works Director Hector Cruz presented information to the board. Cruz resigned soon after. Commissioner Jerry Legge echoed Larson’s comments and went on to say investing $87,000 into the survey on the off chance they’re able to obtain grant money was a poor investment. Both Larson and Legge voted to spend the $87,000 on the comprehensive plan earlier this year. And on the night of October 8th, they voted to have Rachel Cotter move onto the second phase of the survey, despite their reservations.
After the regular meeting the board left for a closed session to discuss personnel issues. It’s common for the board to remain in closed session for an hour or more, then reconvene just to adjourn, so most of the staff and nearly all the audience members left. When the board reconvened just a few minute later, there were only 4 of us in the audience. Commissioner Mitchell immediately made a motion to decline the offer from LSF. Commissioner Bellflowers made a lengthy statement, arguing the board members don’t own the land in question, but the people do. He said the board had an obligation to hold a public hearing, not just because they said they would, but because the people of Hope Mills had a right to be heard. He also asked the board to seek an appraisal of the land before considering LSF’s offer.
But Commissioner Larson interrupted to remind him there was a motion on the floor. Mayor Jackie Warner, who was visibly upset, insisted each board member give a reason for their decision as they voted.
Commissioner Legge voted no and stated the land was never for sale. But the land was most definitely for sale as of June 5 when the board asked to receive a financial offer. Commissioner Larson voted no because the board’s consensus on June 11 was to not sell. But that consensus pertained to LSF’s first offer to purchase 4 acres for $35000. Commissioner Mitchell voted no and stated an 8-1 margin of his constituents, including veterans, have spoken against it and asked him not to sell their land.
Commissioners Bellflowers and Pat Edwards both voted to sell the land to LSF. And Mayor Jackie Warner, who does not have a vote, went on record as being in favor of selling the land. She reminded the board of how much they needed the money the sale would bring them and mentioned that it would be years before they could even consider developing the land themselves.
On the morning of October 9th, news of the board’s decision spread across social media. Wherein the board silenced them, the public found a platform on social media and they’re making their voices heard quite effectively. The discussion and vote weren’t on the agenda for this meeting. The public had a right to know prior to the decision, they had a right to be present, and they had a right to be heard. The hundreds of comments indicate the people are furious and feel like the board manipulated the situation. The comments also indicate the public won’t be silenced next November when this board is up for reelection.