Council OKs grant for church without IDs of tenants
By Jon Hawley
Saturday, January 27, 2018
Elizabeth City City Council voted Monday to approve a $20,000 grant intended to help two downtown businesses — even though councilors didn't know then who the businesses were.
Council voted unanimously to award a Business Improvement Grant to Christ Episcopal Church to help it with a costly renovation to the former Regis Dandar building, a rental property it owns at the corner of Poindexter and Church streets.
The renovation includes work the city has often awarded grants for, and the church has said the improvements will allow two businesses to move into the space.
On Friday, Elizabeth City Downtown Inc. Executive Director Debbie Malenfant disclosed that one of the two businesses will be Music Off Main, which is being opened by Kelly Balmaceda and Sandra Krueger. The business will provide performing arts education for children, she said.
Deferring to City Manager Rich Olson, however, Malenfant declined to identify the second business, which is relocating from another downtown location and apparently hasn’t notified its landlord yet that it plans to move.
Asked to identify the business Friday, Olson also declined.
“We have been asked by the grantee to withhold certain confidential information pursuant to state statute. ... City staff is evaluating whether we have the legal right to do so,” Olson said in an email.
Olson also said it will take “some time” to confer the University of North Carolina School of Government on the issue.
The statute Olson is apparently referencing is General Statute 132-6(d), which allows public records relating to business development to be withheld so long as releasing them would “frustrate the purpose for which such public records are created.” The Daily Advance requested a copy of the unidentified tenant's lease with Christ Episcopal. It was unclear Friday how releasing that lease would “frustrate” the business's relocation.
Citing the church's request, Olson and Malenfant also declined to identify either business during Monday night's City Council meeting. They still recommended awarding the grant, however, based on it scoring 71 out of 100 points on the grant program's rubric.
That's a high score compared to some past recipients, and, city staff have noted, only gives Christ Episcopal credit for creating two new jobs. The church’s application got no credit for jobs that are just being relocated.
However, it remained unclear to council on Monday what businesses the city would be supporting by giving the grant.
During a public hearing on the grant, a citizen, John Bannow, objected to the secrecy.
“Why are we giving $20,000 away when we don't even know what kind of business is coming into town?” Bannow asked. “We should care who this person is; this BIG money is coming, basically, from taxes, and the public, right?”
Bannow also objected to giving a grant to a church, rather than a business, citing the tax benefits Christ Episcopal enjoys as a church and nonprofit.
Olson noted Monday that Christ Episcopal's rental properties are not tax-exempt.
After hearing Bannow's concerns, Malenfant offered to identify the tenants, if council requested, but Olson still indicated that depended on permission from Christ Episcopal.
That didn't satisfy Councilor Johnnie Walton, who noted he had already asked for the tenants' identities.
“The time to do it is right now,” Walton said.
However, Councilor Darius Horton suggested the council has not required a BIG applicant to have or identify a tenant in the past. He moved to award the grant, with Councilor Jeannie Young seconding the motion which passed unanimously.
The city's Business Improvement Grants are awarded not just to create jobs, but to make lasting improvements to downtown business buildings. The goal is to keep buildings in good shape to maintain property values and ensure that if one business folds, another will fill its space.
According to its application, Christ Episcopal is proposing to complete electrical, plumbing, and air system work in the building, in addition to installing a handicapped-accessible bathroom. Malenfant reported Monday that Christ Episcopal has hired William F. Gregory, Inc. to perform that work for about $109,000.
Christ Episcopal Pastor Chip Broadfoot could not be reached for comment Friday. He has previously said the church’s commercial properties support its community service activities.