On Oct. 8, the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners voted against selling a piece of land to the Lone Survivor Foundation.
Here is a statement from Tim Byrom, board president of LSF: “We’re very disappointed with the actions of the (town of Hope Mills) board. I made plans to attend the November meeting and was hoping to discuss our offer with them in person. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, only a half dozen indicated they were opposed to this partnership, and three of them were the board members who voted against it. We want to thank the Hope Mills community for the generous support and encouragement they’ve provided. But now it’s time to refocus our efforts elsewhere.”
LSF first established a facility in Crystal Beach, Texas, in 2010, and provides rehabilitation retreats to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. More than 30 percent of the veterans treated at the Texas center came from the Southeast, so LSF has been scouting potential sites for a second retreat facility for more than a year.
Terry Jung, who served as executive director for LSF until stepping down recently, presented the idea of establishing a local LSF center to the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners in a closed session on June 4. Five of the six board members were overwhelmingly in favor of the project. Commissioner Mike Mitchell was the only board member who showed hesitation. On June 5, the board directed town staff to contact LSF and let its representatives know the Hope Mills Board was excited to receive an official offer. But on June 11 when the town of hope Mills board met again, three of the commissioners were suddenly opposed to the idea and voted to deny the offer.
At a July 23 Hope Mills board meeting, Jung spoke to the board again. Members of the audience were so moved by his comments and so enraged by the board’s actions, they signed up to speak on behalf of LSF. Commissioner Jessie Bellflowers made a motion to hold a public hearing, and one was scheduled for late August. But on Aug. 1, the board voted to cancel the hearing until the members had seen the results of a comprehensive parks and recreation study. Officially, the board members were waiting to know what the study indicated the town should do with the land LSF wanted to purchase.
The results of the study were presented Oct. 1 by Rachel Cotter, project manager for McAdams Group. The study indicated the municipality has more than enough land for current and future development. In fact, it has enough to cover the 10-year plan plus an additional 60 acres. Cotter’s presentation also indicated municipalities often choose to partner with outside organizations, such as LSF, to offset the costs of funding development projects. But the plan does not identify specific parcels of land to be developed or indicate what should be built on them.
While the results should have cleared the path for LSF’s purchase, it did not. Commissioner Meg Larson blasted McAdams Group during the Oct. 8 meeting. She indicated the study had been a waste of money and the information obtained could have been found in a Google search.
Larson made a similar claim several months ago when Hope Mills Public Works Director Hector Cruz presented information to the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners. Cruz resigned soon after.
Commissioner Jerry Legge echoed Larson’s comments and went on to say investing $87,000 into the survey on the off chance the town is able to obtain grant money was a poor investment. Both Larson and Legge voted to spend the $87,000 on the comprehensive plan earlier this year. And on the night of Oct. 8, they voted to have Cotter move on to the second phase of the survey, despite their reservations.
After the regular meeting, the board left for a closed session to discuss personnel issues. It’s common for the board to remain in closed session for an hour or more then reconvene to adjourn, so most of the staff and nearly all the audience members left. When the board reconvened just a few minute later, there were four people in the audience. Mitchell immediately made a motion to decline the offer from LSF. Bellflowers made a lengthy statement, arguing that the board members don’t own the land in question, but the people do. He said the board had an obligation to hold a public hearing not just because they said they would, but because the people of Hope Mills had a right to be heard. He also asked the board to seek an appraisal of the land before considering LSF’s offer.
But Larson interrupted to remind him there was a motion on the floor. Mayor Jackie Warner, who was visibly upset, insisted each board member give a reason for their decision as they voted.
Legge voted no and stated the land was never for sale. But the land was most definitely for sale as of June 5, when the board asked to receive a financial offer. Larson voted no because the board’s consensus on June 11 was to not sell. But that consensus pertained to LSF’s first offer to purchase 4 acres for $35,000. Mitchell voted no and stated an 8-1 margin of his constituents, including veterans, have spoken against it and asked him not to sell their land.
Bellflowers and Commissioner Pat Edwards both voted to sell the land to LSF. And Warner, who does not have a vote, went on record as being in favor of selling the land. She reminded the board of how much the town needed the money the sale would bring them and mentioned that it would be years before the board could even consider developing the land.
On the morning of Oct. 9, news of the board’s decision spread across social media. Wherein the board silenced them, the public found a platform on social media, and people are making their voices heard quite effectively. The discussion and vote weren’t on the agenda for this meeting. The public had a right to know prior to the decision. Hope Mills citizens had a right to be present, and they had a right to be heard. The hundreds of online comments indicate the people are furious and feel like the board manipulated the situation.
The comments also indicate the public won’t be silenced next November when this board is up for reelection.