Filling a food oasis

Published 11:28 am Wednesday, December 12, 2018

JACKSON – Plans have been in motion since at least May to open a new grocery store in Jackson. The Northampton County Board of Commissioners approved a loan here at their Dec. 3 meeting which will make that dream one step closer to reality.

After three new commissioners—Joyce Buffaloe, Kelvin Edwards, and Nicole Boone—were sworn in earlier in that morning, the Board conducted regular county business. One of the items on the agenda was to reconvene a public hearing for changes to Northampton’s Revolving Loan Program (RLF) and to consider a business owner’s application for available funds.

This item was on the agenda at the Nov. 19 meeting, but no action was taken. In a 3-2 vote, the Board decided to delay action until the new commissioners took office. Commissioners Charles Tyner and Geneva Faulkner, however, voted against this decision.

County Attorney Scott McKellar presented the information about the Revolving Loan Program and its changes to the board.

“This loan fund program is an alternative lending source to support private businesses and the creation of new employment opportunities and the retention of existing jobs within the county,” he explained. “The program is designed to fill a specific financing gap in enabling private business development to occur within the county that would otherwise not occur or that would experience hardship without loan assistance from the program.”

“These are not tax dollars,” he continued. “This program originated several decades ago in leftover CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds, so there’s a specific way these programs have been structured.”

McKellar outlined the recommended changes to make the program more accessible to small businesses and to make the approval process more efficient. The loan amount cap was changed from 50 percent of the total project capital costs to 75 percent. The minimum funding per job created went from $10,000 to $37,500. The threshold for application approval was lowered from 65 points to 50 points. The final recommended change was to promote the loan program on the county’s website and social media pages.

“These are funds that we received from the government that will help us help businesses in Northampton County. It’s not coming from your tax dollars,” reiterated Tyner before opening up the floor for public discussion.

McKellar answered questions from the audience about the application process, the amount of money available, and how effective the program has been in the past.

The attorney explained that applicants must be an incorporated business entity with a local presence, and they must submit the business’s financial operations and business plan as a part of their application. There is approximately $300,000 currently available in the RLF.

As for effectiveness, McKellar stated that in the four years he’s served as County Attorney, there has been only one successful application, but lots of interest in the program.

“They stall out because the wording here has been tough, in my opinion,” said McKellar about previous applications.

Faulkner noted that the goal of the RLF program is to benefit citizens by providing new employment opportunities and to benefit the county by providing increased tax revenue.

“The key is it’s a revolving loan,” she said, adding that money paid back can, in turn, be used to help others.

Once discussion was concluded, Tyner called for a vote on the matter. Faulkner motioned to accept the changes, and Buffaloe seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor.

The second part of the public hearing was held to consider an RLF application from South Dominion LLC. The company, managed by Benton Hobbs, currently operates grocery stores in Weldon and Gaston. The loan funds would be used to open a new grocery store in Jackson in the building which formerly housed Piggly-Wiggly.

In May of this year, the Board of Commissioners authorized a bid to purchase the vacant building for $75,000 with the intent to find potential retail tenants to occupy the space. In October, the Board authorized the sale of the building to South Dominion LLC.

At the public hearing, McKellar presented the information about South Dominion’s RLF application, explaining the loan would help finance equipment and inventory purchases. Monthly payments to repay the loan would begin in March 2019. The total requested amount is approximately $225,000.

Because the applicant met all the qualifications, McKellar and his staff’s recommendation was to approve the loan request.

In addition to McKellar’s report, Tyner provided South Dominion’s business plan to the rest of the commissioners to look over. He also noted the results of a survey sent to residents in Jackson, Seaboard, and Garysburg who expressed interest in grocery shopping in Jackson should a new store open up.

“This is an opportunity for us to do something in Northampton County besides close down stores. This will bring revenue to Northampton County,” Tyner said.

One citizen asked during public comment if Tyner had any conflict of interest in the matter.

The Board Chairman answered he did not personally know the company owners and had no stake in the business. But he said he was the one who originally approached Hobbs to ask if he would consider opening a grocery store in Jackson.

Faulkner answered that she, too, had no conflict of interest.

As the second public hearing came to a close, Faulkner motioned to approve the application. Edwards seconded. The motion passed by a unanimous vote.