Technically, one county government agency or another owns the Cumberland Homesteads Tower Museum. On paper, the tourist destination and iconic landmark of an FDR project is in the hands of the school board.
The question looming for the past several months is whether the Cumberland County Commission was willing to accept ownership of the tower museum and property.
The issue has been raised by a need for a new roof to save the structure from irreversible damage. The non-profit Homestead Tower Association (HTA) owns a $1 annual 99-year lease. HTA can’t afford paying for a new roof by itself.
The Cumberland County Board of Education has its hands full funding education for the youth of the county.
The obvious choice, some say, is to transfer the deed from the school board to the county commission.
What to do with the tower has been the topic of several county committee meetings over the past several months, and in the regular December meeting of the full commission, the issue was forwarded through a Buildings and Grounds Committee resolution.
That resolution simply gives, on approval, power to Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster negotiate the acceptance of the Homestead Tower on behalf of the county commission.
No funding or future directive of what to do with the tower museum was attached to the motion.
The resolution passed 12-5 with one member absent from the meeting. That meeting was held over a social platform with audio broadcast live to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic numbers in the county and on advice issued by Gov. Bill Lee.
When First District Commissioner Sue York made the motion to grant Foster authority to negotiate, and Sixth District Commissioner Wendell Wilson seconded the motion, a discussion took place.
Concern was not so much over giving Foster the authority to negotiate with the BOE as it was over future costs related to the county’s acceptance of the historic structure.
Third District Commissioner Darrell Threet noted this was the first step and not the end-all. Options, once the deed is received, include deeding the property to HTA, entering a new lease and making the responsibility of the upkeep HTA’s responsibility or a sharing of building maintenance with HTA.
While the tower and museum is included in the National Historic District designation, Threet said a most costly replacement of the roof might not be required, noting changes that have been made to the roof at Homestead Elementary and private residences over the years.
Concerning ADA work, Threet said, “We could put it in the lease that it is there responsibility, over time, to make these ADA things done over the 20 years.”
Considering the impact on tourism in the county that delivers sales tax dollars associated with visits, “I think it’s just a win-win situation to me,” Threet said.
Threet added that the county mayor could later negotiate details on ownership, a deed transfer or which agency or group is responsible for improvements and funding of needs of the facility.
Third District Commission Rebecca Stone commented on the impact of the tower to tourism. She said visitors from 47 states and some countries had visited the tower over the past year. In addition, the tower museum is a feature destination on the state’s Old Walden Trails video.
“This is a county-wide jewel, and the county already owns it indirectly with the school system and we know the school system cannot afford the roof that it needs and it belongs in the hands of the county,” said Stone.
“I just think it is just a tremendous part of the heritage of the county.”
Fourth District Commissioner Charles Seiber expressed his concern and opposition to the motion, asking if the county was going to have to pay the costs of bringing the facility up to ADA standards. Seiber said he had heard costs could be $750,000 or more.
Foster said the county would have to make the building ADA compliant. Foster said the figures he saw were more in the $200,000 range and that amount can be spread out over 20 years as part of the good faith effort to do so by the county.
Stone added that it did not matter whether the county school system or the county commission owned the building, it would have to be brought up to ADA standards.
“I think the other thing in our favor is that there is an association that is capable of fundraising,” noted Ninth District Commissioner Colleen Mall. “Working with the county and the commissioners would help elevate that fundraising ability.”
Voting yes were First District Commissioners Chad Norris and York, Second District Commissioner Hyder, Third District Commissioners Stone and Threet, Fifth District Commissioner Terry Lowe, Sixth District Commissioners Joseph Sherrill and Wilson, Seventh District Commissioner Mark Baldwin, Eighth District Commissioners Jim Blalock and Deborah Holbrook, and Ninth District Commissioner Mall.
Voting no were Second District Commissioner Kyle Davis, Fourth District Commissioners David Gibson and Seiber, Fifth District Commissioner Jack Davis and Seventh District Commissioner Jerry Cooper. Ninth District Commissioner John Patterson was not present.
In other business, the commission took the following actions:
•APPROVED unanimously adopting the American with Disabilities Act transition plan for Cumberland County. This will involve county funding and in-house work of all county-owned property to bring facilities into compliance with the ADA law. The good-faith effort can be spread out of 20 years with the county’s Budget Committee to designate the amount of funding annually.
•APPROVED a resolution approving Foster’s recommendation that Travis Cole be appointed full-time Emergency Management Agency Director. Cole has been serving as interim director since the former director’s resignation to take another job outside the county.
•APPROVED a budget amendment request from County Clerk Jules Bryson in the amount of $2,800 for the upgrade of electronic equipment for that office.
•APPROVED a budget amendment request from the emergency management office of $3,160 to fund vacation pay related to the resignation of the former agency’s director.
•APPROVED up to $10,000 at the request of the school board to fund a contract with an outside agency for the recruitment and pre-employment vetting of potential bus drivers. A shortage of drivers and the inability to attract new drivers sparked the request from the school board. This resolution does not outsource bus drivers to a private company and the school board retains final approval of bus driver candidates.
•APPROVED a resolution from the Budget Committee funding state mandated old landfill closure work in the amount of $125,000. This action is a result of a recent state inspection of the closed county landfill to correct some issues that have developed over time. Funding will come from the fund balance account.
•APPROVED a resolution from the Budget Committee in the amount of $42,249 for payment to the Barrett Group for reviews of taxes submitted to the state to make sure the county and other government agencies were properly credited. Reviews were made of audited sales tax, state income tax and other revenue streams.
•APPROVED a resolution from the Budget Committee for acceptance of $146,896 from the county’s insurance company as payment for wind damage suffered county buildings and property suffered during a straight-line wind storm on March 29, 2020. Damage was done during that weather event to the Obed River Park, Community Complex and the Recycling Center.
•APPROVED participating with the local office of the Upper Cumberland WorkForce agency for dislocated workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a separate resolution, APPROVED acceptance of a $60,433.30 grant for dislocated workers caused by the pandemic to perform cleaning and sanitation, health surveys and temperature checks. This is a 100 percent state/federal grant requiring no local matching funds.
•APPROVED a resolution sponsored by the commission recognizing County Mayor Allen Foster’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his efforts to encourage the community and keep the community informed.
•HEARD a report from County Attorney Phillip Burnett noting that because of the recent shutdown of in-court appearances, the Criminal Court case involving a former supervisor of the recycling center will be continued in January, Burnett said he expects the case to go to trial, possibly in the summer. Burnett also informed the commission of a handicap disability lawsuit filed Dec. 14 by a county employee but would have more information once he has a chance to receive and review the lawsuit.
•SPECIAL recognition was given to Dennis Gregg by Commissioner Deborah Holbrook for 15 years of service to the Obed Watershed District.
•UPCOMING committee meetings: The Health and Safety Standards Board will meet Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 2 p.m. in the large courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse; the Audit Committee will meet on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 10 a.m. in the small courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse. Because of the COVID-19 mandate issued by the state, this date may change.
•APPROVED election of notaries. New: Melisa Coeland, Savanna Donathan, Mary Beth Dorton, LuCrestia Renee Fuller, Michelle Richards and Ashley Nicole Ritchie, RENEWALS: Deborah Brumfield and Tammie K. Dye.