Buying time: Council approves purchase of old bank drive-thru lot

BUCKHANNON – City Council on Thursday approved the final reading of an ordinance that authorizes Buckhannon’s purchase of a 1.03-acre lot on Madison Street by a majority – with just one dissenting vote.

Councilman Robbie Skinner was the only member of council to vote against approving Ordinance 443, which outlines a purchase agreement wherein the city will pay $200,000 for the approximately one-acre lot where the old Chase Bank drive-thru is located.

The purchase is part of a larger transaction that involves the city purchasing the lot from Citizens Bank for $200,000 in exchange for the bank donating $100,000 to the Stockert Youth & Community Center’s capital campaign. (Read more here.)

Mayor David McCauley and several other city officials have said the city wants to build overflow restroom facilities, a picnic area, 40-some parking spaces and additional greenspace on the lot, which borders Jawbone Park.

At council’s Thursday evening meeting, which was live-streamed to enable the public to view it in real-time due to COVID-19 concerns, McCauley made a plea for council to support the ordinance, calling the property “highly strategic” to the city’s future operations and sponsorship of events.

“This property is highly desirable to our City’s other operations either adjacent to or across the street from Citizens’ property, i.e., Chase lot, Jawbone Park, Public Safety Complex, Stockert Youth & Community Center totaling about seven acres,” McCauley said.

The mayor said the city has the money to “smoothly acquire the property” through one of three methods – utilizing its rainy-day funds; combining some ‘rainy day’ fund money with council’s discretionary funds; or via financing.

“If our City determines to finance all or any portion of this purchase, interest rates are at historic lows,” he noted.

McCauley also said the bank drive-thru lot building had been inspected several times and a committee that had been designated to evaluate acquisition of the property said it had “great potential use and value.”

City officials can map out a detailed plan for the properties use once the property had been acquire, he added.

“Those that insist on a specific plan for the actual use of this property miss the point,” McCauley said in a reference to councilman Robbie Skinner’s comments at an earlier meeting in March. “The property is needed, and time is sensitive as there are other suitors seeking to acquire the property.”

“We will work out the details later as to the precise number and location of parking spaces, the uses and renovation of the existing building, added green space, public art, lighting, sound equipment, seating, etc., after holding a special meeting to solicit public input on future development of this 1.03 acre parcel, probably about the first of July,” he added.

Councilwoman Mary Albaugh made a motion to approve the ordinance, which was seconded by councilman C.J. Rylands.

When McCauley asked council members if they’d like to discuss the matter further, Skinner said he remained opposed to purchasing the lot from Citizens Bank.

“I disagree with [the idea] that we should move forward with the purchase of a property without having a fully developed plan in place that we would like to realize for this property,” Skinner said. “In addition to some of my concerns last time, I would still like to see a hard copy of the appraisal.”

“Newly, for this council meeting, I think it’s premature for us to move forward on this when we’re in a situation (a state of emergency due to COVID-19) where we have some uncertain times ahead of us financially, potentially,” Skinner said.

Skinner also said he didn’t want to dip into council’s rainy-day fund, or reserved funds.

“I agree with you (McCauley) that if it’s going to happen, it should be financed because rates are low, but I believe we should hold off on this until we know what’s going to happen relative to the health crisis,” he added. “I don’t like that we’re moving so swiftly through this without having a plan in place.”

Councilwoman Pam Bucklew said she’d abstained from voting on the ordinance and other related matters at council’s first meeting in March because, like McCauley, she’s on the board of SYCC.

“Personally, I’d still like to have a town hall meeting on this,” Bucklew said. “It’s not that I don’t want to have the property – I’d like to have the property; I just feel the people should have a voice in it.”

McCauley said he hoped to have public town hall planning sessions after the city buys the property.

Councilman David Thomas agreed with Bucklew, saying he was happy to hear that McCauley was planning on scheduling public planning sessions beginning in July.

“We need to have a town hall meeting,” Thomas said. “Although I have a number of issues, I’m not pleased with about this, I’m going to vote for this because I think it’s important to invest in infrastructure when we have resources to do so.”

“We don’t want to go willy-nilly spending money,” he added, “but at the same time, we’re going to have resources to do some very important infrastructure things that are needed for this community, and I think this is one of those areas that is critically important for us long term.”

Rylands said he sees the purchase as an investment in expanding Buckhannon’s ability to host events, while simultaneously supplying additional parking and greenspace. Council shouldn’t overthink the decision, he said.

“Once you’ve sat by and overthought things and missed a few deals, you begin to refine the process of evaluating [property] acquisitions,” he said. “When certain things come about and you can acquire them, you need to seize that moment and acquire the property, and then we’ll follow it up with a thoughtful process and see how to incorporate it into our bigger plans.”

City recorder Randy Sanders agreed with Rylands.

“As a businessperson, you pass up a deal and you look back, and you regret it,” Sanders said. “I think this is one of those times where we would regret it if we were to pass on it and not have another opportunity to move forward … I think that in 10 years, we’ll look back on this with pride, but more importantly, in 10 years, the citizens will [be proud] of it.”

Sanders said he saw the property as space that could be converted into an incentive to draw more people into the city – such as additional parking or more space to hold special events.

Despite Bucklew’s reservations, she, Sanders, Rylands, Albaugh, Thomas and McCauley voted to approve the purchase agreement ordinance, while Skinner voted against it. At council’s March 5 meeting, Skinner supported a motion to accept Citizens’ Bank’s $100,000 gift to SYCC’s capital campaign.

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