North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper discussed goals for a three-acre parcel with dilapidated buildings near the town’s wastewater treatment plant during the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. board meeting Friday.
The matter came up when Shelmer Blackburn, an EDC board member, asked about the parcel and indicated that it should have development potential. He referred to it as the Jenkins property.
Hooper responded and said it was the site of the C.C. Smoot & Sons Tannery and other uses later “so it has had a lot of pollution.” The tannery, once Wilkes County’s largest employer, operated here from 1897-1940.
Hooper said the property is on the town’s radar, apparently referring to getting the dilapidated building removed. He added that “it would be the most complicated project a town could do.”
He said it’s complicated from the standpoint of tearing it down and also for establishing ownership.
“We have taken the administrative step to say that if that building catches fire, we’re not going to try to rescue it. We’ll post our trucks around it to protect the properties around it, but if it catches it’s burning to the ground because it’s far too dangerous and it’s not worth saving,” said Hooper.
“We haven’t condemned it, because if you condemn it, you have to have a plan in place for getting rid of it and we don’t have that yet because it’s so complicated.”
Hooper said the property is considered to be a “brownfield,” which he said essentially means it is polluted. He said he would go so far as to say it might have Superfund-level pollution. There are both state and federal Superfund programs for cleaning up polluted sites.
“So you have to go through a very rigorous process of testing to identify the pollutants before you can tear down the building,” continued Hooper.
There are state and federal grants available for this, but they’re hard to get because of the competition for them, he said, adding that there are pros and cons for state and federal grant programs and town officials haven’t determined which would be best.
“We’re trying to get our ducks in a row so we can go through this cumbersome process to identify the pollutants, get some money, tear it down, mediate the site and make it safe and get rid of that eyesore, and all the while trying to save the smokestack there, which is an iconic structure in town.”
Hooper was talking about a smokestack visible from much of town that released smoke from the coal burned to produce electricity and power boilers at the tannery. Jenkins Wholesale, written vertically, is on the side of the smokestack.
He said the situation is complicated further because no one knows who owns the property.
Hooper said the man who owned the building is deceased and bequeathed the building to his children. “Some of his children are deceased and the others don’t want it, so they haven’t claimed ownership of it and they haven’t paid the taxes in years and years.”
Hooper said the Internal Revenue Service, State of North Carolina, Wilkes County and North Wilkesboro have tax liens on the property. He said the IRS and the state don’t want to deal with it and Wilkes County may wish to do so, but probably not.
Wilkes Tax Administrator Alex Hamilton said Friday that $41,833 in county and town property taxes are owed on the property.
Hooper said he proposed to County Manager John Yates that the town buy the property for $1 from the county if the county forecloses on it for failure to pay taxes and takes ownership.
He said North Wilkesboro would have to secure funding needed to take it through the brownfields process for cleanup.
North Wilkesboro has funds in its budget for tearing down old buildings, but not enough so state or federal money would be needed, said Hooper.
Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon said the property could at least possibly be added to the town’s park.
The North Carolina Brownfields Program, authorized by the state statute, provides a mechanism to treat prospective developers of brownfield sites differently than the parties responsible for contaminating them.
Prospective developers negotiate a brownfields agreement with the program that defines activities needed to make the site suitable for reuse, rather than cleaning up the site to regulatory standards.
A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said the property in question is not currently in the brownfields program.