The Cumberland County Board of Education voted last week to negotiate the transfer of ownership of the historic Homestead Tower to Cumberland County.
The building and grounds committee of the Cumberland County Commission also voted that it would consider taking ownership of the 1930s structure.
"They've been before us for months now," Wendell Wilson, 6th District commissioner, said during the county panel's Thursday afternoon meeting. "If you look outside today, it's raining. Every time it rains, the Homestead Tower has trouble. It's got too much water coming in, and it's deteriorating. The sooner we make our decision, the better."
The issue of ownership has delayed the county taking action on a request from the nonprofit Homestead Tower Association to help replace the roof on the building, estimated at $100,000 or more.
Jim Blalock, 8th District commissioner, said the board of education needed to decide what they wanted to do with the building before the county took action.
"Our lawyer advised us not to put money into something we don't own," Blalock said. "I don't think we ought to take any action until the board decides what they want to do with it."
Teresa Boston, 8th District representative to the BOE, said the board needed more information before it could make a decision.
"If our board decided to quit-claim the property to the county, so that you would then own the building, would the county accept? We can't just execute a quit-claim deed and say, 'Here you go.' We need some kind of confirmation the county would be willing to accept the tower," she told the committee.
The parcel with the tower is about .7 acres at the intersection of Hwy. 127 and Hwy. 68. A survey was last completed in 1999.
"That's the part that would be up for discussion of transferring to the county," Boston said.
Darrel Threet, 3rd District commissioner, moved to accept the tower, if the BOE voted to transfer ownership, supported by Nancy Hyder, 2nd District commissioner.
The school system has a 99-year lease with the Homestead Tower Association, which operates a museum on the New Deal and the families who participated in the Depression-era resettlement program.
"If the county is willing to accept it, and the board votes to transfer it, I think the association and the board of education can terminate that lease upon agreement," Boston said.
Threet added the county could then enter a lease with the association to continue operating the museum.
Rebecca Stone, 3rd District commissioner, said, "That is a beautiful part of our county. It is part of the history of our county, and we've got to take care of it."
She said it didn't make sense for the building to be owned by the school system.
"It's who can take care of it," she said. "And I don't know that the Tower Association can maintain it. But it needs to be owned by whoever can maintain it, and it definitely needs to be maintained."
County Mayor Allen Foster said the county thought it was the owner. The building was on the county's list of facilities used for a recent audit of accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"We got the report on that. There is a significant amount of ADA work that needs to be done," Foster said.
The county will have to develop a plan to correct all ADA deficiencies found at county facilities. The work would not have to be done immediately.
Blalock said he was not against the county taking ownership of the tower, but felt the action was premature.
"To sit here and vote for somebody is going to give us something, we haven't seen in writing what we're getting and what we're getting into, I think that's a bad mistake," he said. "There's no telling what the board will come up with, what they'll add to or what they'll take away."
Chad Norris, 1st District commissioner, asked if the motion could be amended to say the panel was "open" to accepting the Tower from the school system.
Threet and Hyder agreed to amend the motion.
Boston said the board of education had three options: keep the tower, transfer it to the county or transfer it to the Tower Association.
"The building needs some repairs done. We just don't have the money," Boston said of the school system. "But we cannot as a community afford to let that building go into disrepair. It would be helpful -- knowing that it's got to be approved by the full commission …
"If you're not willing to take it, then I need to know that. That marks off one of our options."
Hyder said the Tower was one of the icons of CumberlandCounty.
"We need to do what's best here and work together and preserve it," Hyder said.
The motion passed unanimously. Charlie Seiber, 4th District commissioner, was not present.
At the meeting of the board of education later in the evening, the board unanimously agreed to negotiate the transfer of the tower to the county following a motion from Stace Karge, 9th District representative, supported by Chris King, 6th District.
The transfer would include the Tower and .7 acres of property and would be subject to the terms of the lease with the Homestead Tower Association.
Boston cautioned that the county could say no. She said she would prefer to wait until they hear back from the full commission.
"If they get in there and they're going to have to spend a lot more money than they anticipated, they may say, 'No, we don't want to do this,'" she said.
Karge said the motion would only allow Patton to proceed with transfer.
"For expediency purposes, that's the intent," she said.
Patton said, "If we hear back and they don't have an interest — the other party would have to be willing to accept it."
He suggested an amendment to the motion to negotiate the transfer of the property, if the county is willing to accept it. Karge and King approved of the amendment.
The motion was unanimously approved.