‘Whopper’ of a deal

Published 5:17 pm Friday, January 26, 2024

JACKSON – Following a closed session and a brief public hearing during a special called meeting here Jan. 23, the Northampton County Commissioners approved the contract to purchase the former Burger King property near Garysburg.

County Attorney Scott McKellar presented the information, noting that the potential plan for the property is for Northampton County to eventually lease it to the county’s ABC Board.

“That’s how the county plans to recoup its expenses in this matter,” he stated.

The 1.35-acre property is located on Highway 46 between Garysburg and Gaston at the I-95 exit. The Burger King closed down last year and has been vacant since then. The current tax value of the property is $456,217 and the seller is Ara Melkonian.

McKellar stated that the proposed purchase price would be $370,000 which would be a cash purchase with money appropriated from the county’s General Fund. The contract also required a five percent “earnest money” deposit ($18,500) to be paid within three days, and the closing date is scheduled for March 13.

“A phase one environmental has been completed with no issues,” McKellar reported.

He also noted that, if the purchase is approved, “at a later date, a proposed lease agreement [with the county’s ABC Board] will come back before this board for consideration and approval.”

Northampton ABC Board Chair Iris Williams spoke before the commissioners to explain why they were interested in leasing the property. She explained that the ABC Store in Gaston receives the highest revenues for the county, but there have also been complaints about the location too. Parking, for example, is one of the issues they have there.

A new store, however, can bring in more people because of its proximity to the interstate.

“We believe that will attract tourism into Northampton County, to increase that revenue not only for the county but for ABC too,” she explained.

Williams also said the ABC Board had money available to renovate the vacant building and to pay the lease.

Derrick Bennett, who serves as the county’s Economic Development Director, said he thought this would be “a grand opportunity for Northampton County.”

“I-95 is a diamond in the rough. When I first looked at this property, I saw it as an opportunity to grow tourism and attract other businesses to the exit,” he said.

According to Bennett, that exit (Exit 176) receives about 9,000 vehicles per day, but not many of them are spending money in Northampton County.

He stated his support for the potential of partnering with the ABC Board to bring more revenue to the county.

During the public hearing, only two citizens chose to speak and they both had questions about the proposal, including the estimated return on investment and if any business analysis had been done beforehand. One of those speakers, Alan Tashima, said he thought the citizens should have more information about the proposal before the commissioners voted on the purchase.

After the public hearing concluded, the commissioners had the chance to discuss the purchase proposal before taking a vote.

Board Chair Charles Tyner said that they wanted to see increases in ABC revenues, and this could be a way to do it. He noted that surrounding counties often receive more money back from ABC sales than Northampton County does.

Tyner made similar statements during a meeting in January 2023, as previously reported by the News Herald. Northampton County reported at that time they received $24,000 in revenue distributions from the ABC Board at the end of FY22. Neighboring counties received anywhere from $35,000 (Bertie County) to $362,000 (Halifax County).

According to the most recent numbers for FY23 (which ended June 30, 2023) from the state’s ABC Commission website, Northampton County’s ABC Board received $1.5 million in gross sales. But considering costs and other operating expenses, the amount of income before distributions was reduced to $103,609. By state statute, a portion of revenues must be distributed for law enforcement ($2,870) and alcohol education ($4,019), and then another portion is distributed to the county’s General Fund ($31,429). That left the ABC Board with a net income of $65,291 for FY23.

“We’ve gotta grow,” said Tyner at Tuesday night’s meeting. “[Interstate] 95 is a place where we can grow.”

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards said he has seen ABC revenues support education efforts in counties such as Nash and Wilson, and that he hoped to see something similar in Northampton in the future.

Commissioner Melvetta Broadnax Taylor asked if the ABC Board had an estimated timeframe for opening. Bennett answered that it could be approximately six to nine months from the closing date.

Tyner wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the need to invest money as a way to bring dollars back to the county.

Edwards motioned to approve the purchase contract, to appropriate the money from the county’s General Fund, and to authorize County Manager Julian Phillips to execute the contract. Commissioner Geneva Faulkner seconded.

The vote was unanimously in favor.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners said in their comments they were looking forward seeing the project make an impact on Northampton County. Tyner and Faulkner both mentioned the grocery store in Jackson as an example of a similar situation that was able to bring a business to the county.

As previously reported by the News Herald, the county purchased the vacant former Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Jackson in May 2018 for a total of $75,000. In October 2018, the commissioners then authorized the sale of the grocery store property to the business owners who later opened the Food Fresh grocery store in March 2019.

The News Herald reached out to ABC Board Chair Williams for more information about the ABC Board’s plans if they are able to lease the property. She stated that they were still in the very early planning stages right now and did not have any concrete details yet, but they were excited about the possibilities.

Northampton County currently has four ABC stores located in Gaston, Conway, Jackson, and Rich Square.