The commissioners of the town of Hope Mills had a meltdown at their regularly scheduled meeting July 23. Had you been in attendance, you would likely agree that the Hope Mills community has outgrown its elected officials, with only Mayor Jackie Warner and Commissioner Pat Edwards remaining the sole sources of sensibility, common courtesy, integrity and leadership. Together, these two women make serving the residents Hope Mills and looking out for the long-term future of the town their highest priority. For this, we are grateful.

After that July 23 meeting and the controversy swirling around the Lone Survivor Foundation situation, the remaining commissioners – Jesse Bellflowers, Meg Larson, Mike Mitchell and Jerry Legge – are engulfed in a nonproductive quagmire of trite and tacky accusations, petty jealousies, child-like grudges and chronic miscommunications and misinformation.

What makes this situation such an atrocity is that, except for the ongoing deceit, misdirection and rampant pettiness of these elected officials, there is no downside to the LSF project. It’s ALL good. However, that is contrary to what Lisa Carter Waring, Meg Larson and others are disseminating on the private Hope Mills Chatter Facebook page. In the spirit of being fair and balanced, here are some facts about the LSF project and the political meltdown as it exists today. I welcome all challenges or debate concerning the information below.

FACT: The LSF expressed interest and remains interested in the construction of an approximately 10,000-square-foot facility in Cumberland County, preferably in Hope Mills, for conducting therapeutic and wellness retreats for active-duty military service members, veterans, and their families dealing with post-traumatic stress, mild traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, chronic pain and related invisible wounds of war. Cumberland County was selected because of the demographics of previous LSF retreat attendees and for its proximity to Fort Bragg. Twenty-nine percent of the 2018 LSF attendees were from North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

FACT: The LSF did its initial due diligence on the Cumberland County location and found that residents, businesses and organizations were wholeheartedly behind the foundation locating the retreat facility here. Despite this growing support, finding the right location for the retreat proved challenging. The initial site in Linden had soil percolation issues and was deeded back to the original owners.

FACT: The Fayetteville-Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation suggested the property in Hope Mills located at 4562 Calico Dr. This is the site of an old textile mill and dam referred to as Lake Bed #2. The property needed and requested as 19 acres out of about 67 acres of land – all owned by the town of Hope Mills.

FACT: While only about 4 of the 19 acres are suitable for building – the rest being in a flood plain – the property meets all the needs and is perfect for the LSF retreat.

FACT: The LSF followed proper protocol, working with the FCCEDC and its associates, Andrew Pennink, Teddy Warner and Robert Van Geons, as well as the town of Hope Mills, including Town Manager Melissa Adams, Town Attorney Dan Hartzog Jr., Mayor Jackie Warner and the Hope Mills commissioners. Initially, when the FCCEDC brought the project to the Hope Mills commissioners in a closed session June 4, the commissioners were enthusiastically supportive of the project.

FACT: Unfortunately, within hours of the closed session, the information discussed in that session was leaked to Commissioner Meg Larson’s former campaign manager, Lisa Carter Waring – who also manages the private Facebook page called Hope Mills Chatter. Waring also owns property that is adjacent to the land requested by the LSF. She immediately launched a campaign of misinformation that questioned the feasibility of the project.

FACT: At the next closed session meeting, the commissioners unanimously rejected the entire LSF proposal and flatly turned down the project. Even the self-proclaimed grandest veteran advocate, Commissioner Jesse Bellflowers, who professes an undying patriotic loyalty and dedication to all military veterans, couldn’t muster up the intestinal fortitude for a logical defense for the LSF or his military veteran brethren.

FACT: The commissioners did not notify the LSF of their decision until weeks later.  At the July 23 town meeting, which the LSF attended, when asked why the project was rejected, the commissioners scrambled to find logical explanations. All their reasoning was baseless. That said, Bellflowers said the process was done “back ass wards.” It was not.

FACT: All the proper policies and procedures were followed. Commissioner Mitchell surprisingly suggested that because Teddy Warner, Mayor Warner’s son, works for the FCCEDC, there may be a conflict of interest and further insinuated that he and the mayor may have some side deal going on from which they would both personally benefit.

Larson’s comments and objections were all over the place. She obviously resents the mayor and doesn’t want to see her accomplish or get credit for anything.

As for Legge’s conduct, he was pretty passive. He seemed distant from the controversy, as if he didn’t know what was going on. And who can blame him? There has been so much bad information, misdirection and misrepresentation put forth by the commissioners and Hope Mills Chatter Facebook page that the average Hope Mills citizen has no way of understanding or finding out the facts about important Hope Mills issues like this – issues that affect their future way of life and quality of life.

FACT: The commissioners all concurred that the town meeting of July 23 “spiraled out of control.” They may have, but the citizens in attendance did not. I was there. What I saw was a room packed with their constituents – more than 75 enthusiastic and passionate Hope Mills citizens made up of active duty military, veterans, support organizations as well as friends and family – all in support of Hope Mills, our war veterans and the mission of the LSF. Yes, they were passionate. Yes, they were sometimes loud. Yes, they cheered and applauded frequently whenever something positive was stated about the LSF project. They came en masse because they wanted to be heard.

FACT: Teddy Warner did not solicit or invite the LSF to Hope Mills. He works for the FCCEDC, which was assisting the LSF in finding a suitable site for their center.

WHY? Because the FCCEDC knows it would be a good fit for Cumberland County to have the LSF locate here. It would enhance the overall profile of the county. Teddy works specifically for FCCEDC President Robert Van Geons. Pennink, also an advocate of the project, is the chairman of the board of FCCEDC. All were involved in bringing the LSF project to Hope Mills. For anyone to even think there was some sort of “inside conspiracy” going on only acknowledges and confirms their lack of knowledge and understanding of how economic development occurs.

FACT: All standard operating procedures were properly followed by everyone involved. The first closed session was initiated by the FCCEDC and was informational, with a presentation from LSF Executive Director Terry Jung. No proposal was made, just an explanation of the organization, its mission and the project.

FACT: After that meeting, the board was enthusiastic and optimistic, and all spoke favorably about the project. They led Jung to believe they wanted the project in Hope Mills.

FACT: The mayor knew about LSF’s interest in Hope Mills. However, before the LSF could present any program/proposal, its representatives wanted to make sure the site was workable.

FACT: LSF completed its due diligence, a process that included soil and terrain testing and several site visits. The FCCEDC has maps and information about all tracts of land available for economic development, both private and public. It is the FCCEDC’s job to provide information and assist potential investors interested in locating within Cumberland County.

FACT: It is at this phase of the due diligence that the town’s attorney and town manager assist in the process. There were never any secrets. Nor was information withheld from the Hope Mills commissioners as alleged. Everyone was doing their job for the betterment of Hope Mills and Cumberland County.

FACT: The McAdams Firm is working on a separate project, the Hope Mills Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Plan. For the most part, the fact-finding and surveys have been completed. Based on the residents’ comments, the project’s primary focus will be on the Hope Mills Lake Park, Heritage Park and the golf course. These were identified as priorities. This is still a work in progress. However, it has been acknowledged that there are many town-owned properties that could be considered for development in the future. However, town management is aware that cost and funding will be a major factor. A comprehensive site plan will be developed soon. Currently, the above mentioned three areas will take priority.

Recently, a special town meeting was requested by Mitchell and Larson for Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. on the premise of discussing the Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Plan. It will also include a closed session to discuss a “personal matter.” Since the three areas of development have already been determined, this meeting is speculatively being viewed as a retaliatory delay tactic to postpone or scuttle the scheduled Aug. 20 public hearing about the LSF project.

Even though Commissioner Bellflowers has supported this action, he is concerned. He wrote Mitchell requesting assurance that all discussions and actions regarding the LSF proposed project would take place in a public session. If the Aug. 20 meeting gets canceled, Bellflowers will lose his do-over opportunity to prove he hasn’t turned his back on his fellow veterans.

In a recent memo, Bellflowers stated “… know, from the July 23rd meeting forward, ALL discussions and actions regarding the Lone Survivor Foundation proposed project will be conducted in open-session, with public input.” His credibility is on the line here after being accused by many of being a hypocrite for not supporting military veterans and advocating for the LSF project.

The closed session is another matter. At first, it looked like it was shaping up to be an organized berating session of Mayor Warner, but she is an elected official, so that wouldn’t classify as a “personal matter.” So, who does that leave? The town attorney? The town manager? Both have performed their jobs flawlessly with dedication and pride.

Again, most of this dust-up about the LSF is arising from personal issues each commissioner has against the mayor. And for what? Doing her job? For working hard and staying on top of the town’s business and looking out for what’s in Hope Mills’ best interest? Below are the facts concerning the feasibility of the Lake Bed #2 site. This information was easily accessible to all Hope Mills commissioners had they taken the time to do their jobs.

FACT: The FCCEDC found the LSF the perfect location in Lake Bed #2, and it had everything to do with the suitability. The property was beautiful, quiet, serene and available. It’s good for Hope Mills, the veterans, Cumberland County and North Carolina as we would become known nationwide as a state that takes care of veterans.

FACT: The land in question is split by a creek, and most of that is in a flood plain and not suitable for development. The 4-acre area that can be developed is what the LSF is interested in for constructing the retreat center. It even has a PWC lift station on property, sewage and electrical easements. The other needed 14+ acres will provide additional beauty, serenity and seclusion, all of which will be conducive to the therapy and treatments. The remaining 40+/-acres would remain with the town.

FACT: The LSF offered to pay for the property; it was even willing to lease it. It wanted to work within whatever parameters the commissioners set forth to make this a win-win achievement. To this end, the LSF made an initial good-faith offer and expected further negotiations. That never happened. The project was rejected out of hand even after LSF offered to add a reverser clause so if the town were to ever build a dam in the future, LSF would return the property. With that said …

FACT: Lake Bed #2 has no possibility of being reinstated as county reservoir. This was a misdirection put forth by Larson, Mitchell and the Hope Mills Chatter. Larson stated that she was “not willing to give it (property) away because of its potential value as a future reservoir.” She didn’t do her research. The records show that PWC, after evaluating the area, stated unequivocally that it would not consider damming up Lake Bed #2 as a reservoir. In addition, it would be financially burdensome with estimated costs of more than $10 million.

FACT: Larson knew this going into the July 23 meeting. Mick Noland, PWC’s chief operations officer of the Water Resources Division, contacted Hope Mills through Mayor Warner and discussed both the 1999 and 2014 studies. Evaluations conducted by PWC and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality since the completion of the 1999 and 2014 studies indicated that the Cape Fear River would be sufficient for a water supply well beyond 2050. Again, based on the study, PWC has no plans to recommend construction of reservoirs in the Hope Mills area. On July 18, Larson was advised of this decision to not pursue further evaluation or permitting of a reservoir.

FACT: What has not been disclosed is that Hope Mills Chatter page administrator Lisa Carter Waring owns property in Cumberland County on Lake Bed #2 and would personally benefit if this development were to change in the future.

FACT: The Hope Mills commissioners never notified the LSF after rejecting the offer. It was stated that Teddy Warner was told of the decision. Again, Teddy works for the FCCEDC and was never the contact for negotiations. Commissioner Mitchell directed Town Attorney Dan Hartzog Jr. to send a letter of notification to LSF. It was received weeks after the rejection.

FACT: The LSF’s proposal was rejected in a three-to-one vote with Mitchell, Bellflowers and Larson against the project and Pat Edwards for it.

FACT: When the open session resumed, the commissioners told the public they had taken no action. The residents of Hope Mills had a right to learn about the LSF project and comment on it.

The purpose of LSF returning for the July 23 meeting was threefold: To inform Hope Mills residents of the real intentions of the LSF; to defend and salvage its reputation that had been maligned by the Hope Mills Chatter Facebook page; and to get an affirmation of public input. The meeting was democracy in action. The town hall was filled with tax-paying citizens who wanted to be heard. There was no mayhem, no circus, no rudeness or outright displays of outrage. Well, maybe Alex Warner did become a little overly sensitive, but only after his wife and son were maligned and mischaracterized. Honestly, if they assaulted my family like they did his, security would probably have escorted me from the building.

FACT: The time is now to grow and brand Hope Mills as a renowned and respected Cumberland County community. That takes strong, respected leadership void of rumors, innuendo, suspicions and petty personal politics. It’s time to shed the negative cliché of “Hopeless Mills.” Mayor Warner is Hope Mills’ flagship as was Eddie Dees and Ed Deaver. She’s also a mother, grandmother, business owner and tax payer. Who better can relate to the residents of Hope Mills? Hope Mills does not need a leadership team of boastful braggarts, glamour girls, self-righteous authorities or comatose leaders from the ’70s and ’80s.

If the Hope Mills commissioners turn their backs on the LSF project, the town and its tax-paying residents, its active-duty military population, the thousands of veterans who support the community, and more importantly, the opportunity to do something significant and really, really good for humanity, then you might as well take the “hope” out of Hope Mills.

I’ll conclude this editorial piece with this not-so ironic development. On Aug. 9, Cumberland County is hosting the North Carolina League of Municipalities to conduct a session that will focus on ethics in government. In view of what is taking place in Hope Mills, you would think the timing for this event would be perfect. No so. In a strange and unprecedented move, most of the Hope Mills commissioners are boycotting the event and refusing to attend. Despite the opportunity to talk and mix and mingle with other successful state and municipal leaders, they are blatantly ignoring their responsibilities and commitment to represent the citizens of Hope Mills.

It’s crazy. Even crazier, Commissioner Larson went on the record saying, “Ethics training is somewhat meaningless if it doesn’t transfer into our everyday behavior.” That’s a statement we all can agree on.

FACT: The Lone Survivor Foundation is an awesome organization, and it does great things for so many. We know it will be successful. We can only hope it is here in our community.

Stay tuned. Thank you for reading and trusting Up & Coming Weekly.

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