County commissioners have been at odds for the past two months over whether to lease a two-acre tract the county owns on lower Russ Avenue for the facility. Mountain Projects, the agency that runs Head Start in Haywood County, announced last week it would withdraw its interest in the site.
“I have reached the conclusion that regardless of how this issue goes, Mountain Projects loses,” Patsy Dowling, the director of Mountain Projects, wrote in a letter delivered to commissioners last Friday.
Dowling has been working with the county for much of the past year to arrive at a lease agreement, but as she moved to finalize the deal, it turned out commissioners weren’t all on board. Commissioners Larry Ammons and Kirk Kirkpatrick were hesitant to relinquish a valuable tract of land in one of the county’s prime commercial corridors. Commissioners Bill Upton and Mary Ann Enloe argued that helping disadvantaged toddlers and seniors who can’t stay home alone is more important.
The fifth commissioner, Skeeter Curtis, never weighed in publicly, allowing the two-to-two standoff to drag on.
“It was not encouraging that we had not reached resolution after nine weeks. There are different philosophies and different opinions on the board and I respect those,” Dowling said. “If we can’t reach a compromise and move forward, to me it was pointless to continue the debate. I felt like it was best for everybody.”
Mountain Projects is a non-profit agency that runs social aid programs — the majority funded by the government — from low-income rental assistance to rides for seniors. Head Start, a federal preschool program to prepare low-income children for kindergarten, is one of several programs Mountain Projects runs.
“I have too much respect for Mountain Projects, the more than 5,000 clients we serve each year and the residents of the county to continue the debate in the land lease issue,” Dowling’s letter read.
Commissioners had varying opinions on whether Mountain Projects at one time had been promised the site. According to some versions, the site was promised to Mountain Projects a year ago and merely lacked formalities. According to others, the deal was never a promise but just an idea on the table. Commissioners spent a month debating whether the county had made a verbal agreement that should be honored.
Ammons and Kirkpatrick eventually agreed to draft a sample lease, but insisted that the terms of the lease favor the county. The terms inevitably included a deal killer. The most egregious was the suggestion that the land would have to be turned back over to the county at the end of the 40-year lease — along with the Head Start facility Mountain Projects planned to build on the property.
Last week, Ammons proposed another permutation of this language. The county would have to compensate Mountain Projects for the building if it wanted the land back when the lease was up.
That was still a deal killer, however. Dowling said she couldn’t get federal funding for the site or construction under those terms. Ammons suggested drafting a lease along these lines anyway just to see.
“We were heading toward another lease we were having our county attorney draw up that I didn’t think would pass muster with Mountain Projects,” Curtis said. “We needed to get it resolved and stop running around in circles.”
Curtis called Dowling last Thursday and suggested Mountain Projects buy the property outright based on a fresh appraisal of the property instead of a lease. Curtis suggested that the county would still have to approve whatever Mountain Projects built at the site.
Instead of pursuing yet another twist, Dowling decided to cut her losses and pull out. Dowling said she did not have any more time to spare chasing a site that might never pan out.
Curtis said his failure to weigh in on the issue at any of the meetings was misinterpreted as being against the idea.
“I had not taken a side on the issue. I was doing everything I could to make sure I could resolve this as a win-win situation for everyone,” Curtis said. “I just hated that this has happened.”
The hunt is now on for a new tract of land for a Head Start and senior day care facility, Dowling said.
“My goal is still to have an intergenerational facility in this county this time next year,” Dowling said. “It is optimistic, but where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Dowling said she has gotten several calls from people with land or buildings for her to look at.
“People are coming forward who have followed this who want to help and support it because they believe in the concept,” Dowling said.
Dowling attended Head Start herself when she was a child.
“It is a program I believe in,” Dowling said.