Setback fails to derail Commerce Center plans

Published 11:40 am Friday, June 17, 2011

GATESVILLE – While plans move forward on the Merchants Commerce Center near here, one of the major “players” in that commercial development has withdrawn.

In a June 8 email sent to Gates County Manager Toby Chappell, Dr. Lewis Fisher Jr. said he was not able to capitalize funding for his Family Fun Center project. That project was a multi-purpose recreational facility on 7.5 acres of land within the Kim Old complex located off US 158 across from Gates County High School. Plans for the facility include a bowling alley, movie theater, indoor bumper cars, food court and games arcade.

Dr. Fisher’s decision to withdraw does compromise the county’s request for a $700,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center, one that will be used for the creation of a sewer collection system to serve the proposed development area.

Clawbacks were part of that Rural Center grant, which has been approved but no funds have been forwarded to the county. The grant was awarded based on the number of full-time (with benefits) jobs created by two businesses that had expressed a desire to locate within the Commerce Center.

The Family Fun Center was to provide 20 jobs, valued, in clawback terms, at $200,000 ($10,000 per position). Dr. Fisher, in his original proposal, did not agree to repay the clawbacks should his business fail to meet the job creation requirements set forth by the Rural Center. A yet to be named business said it will provide 50 full-time jobs and will cover the cost the clawbacks should it fall short of creating those employment opportunities.

Should the county go forward with the full $700,000 from the Rural Center, it will be held accountable for the $200,000 left void by Fisher’s decision not to build. Merchants Commerce Center developer Kim Old said he would split that cost with the county by deeding three tracts of land, worth $33,333.33 each, within the Center to the county.

Meanwhile, county officials are saying Dr. Fisher’s decision to withdraw leaves them with two options.

“One is to reduce the overall Rural Center grant from $700,000 to $500,000, taking into account the 20 jobs he (Dr. Fisher) was going to provide reduces the grant by $200,000,” Chappell said.

“Option two is for Kim Old to take on responsibility to provide those 20 jobs through his recruitment efforts that the county will be glad to assist,” Chappell continued. “We want to recruit new businesses to Gates County. Our main goal is to improve the economic development climate in the county.”

The clawbacks do apply in option two. However, as Chappell pointed out, there is a 24-month window for those 20 jobs to be in place. Chappell also noted that the 20 jobs could be spread out over more than one new business.

During their regularly scheduled budget meeting on June 15, the Gates County Board of Commissioners amended their agenda to discuss the two options. The board voted to accept option two.

“If we had our preference, Gates County would love to have Mr. Fisher in the county,” Chappell said. “However, we have learned that is no longer an option. This not our choice; this is a business decision by Mr. Fisher; we will adapt and move forward.”

When asked about the possibility of all funding sources being approved for the $2.65 million wastewater project and the county winds up $200,000 short due to Fisher’s decision, where would that leave the county.

“If we have to come-up with $200,000 for wastewater infrastructure worth in excess of two and a half million dollars, I would say that would be a great deal on the county’s behalf,” Chappell stressed. “This wastewater treatment facility and the infrastructure to go with it is a key ingredient to the development of our future. This setback does not deter us from moving forward.”

To date, Gates County has received a $900,000 grant for the wastewater project from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). Chappell said the EDA has been advised of Dr. Fisher’s decision and their grant will not be affected by his announcement to withdraw from the project.

The Merchants Commerce Center is just one part of the overall development of a core area along US 158 from just west of Eleanors Crossroads to just east of Easons Crossroads, including the Kim Old property. That entire area has been targeted for commercial and residential growth.

Other grant sources targeted to assist the county in that overall development include the Golden LEAF Foundation ($200,000), Community Development Block Grant ($350,000) and the North Carolina Industrial Development Fund ($500,000).

All totaled, the funding requests will pay for upgrades and expansion to the old wastewater treatment plant at the now closed Gates County Correctional Facility, which the county will own.

The work to the existing wastewater treatment plant will upgrade it to handle a capacity of 50,000 gallons per day (it’s currently rated at 25,000 gpd). The project also includes all internal piping to the Commerce Center as well as extending sewer lines in both directions from the Center (1,500 feet east towards Eason’s Crossroads and 3,000 feet west towards Central Middle School) for future development as well as the pumping stations needed to handle the wastewater flow.

Central Middle School and Gates County High School will continue to have their wastewater needs met by the sewer system.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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