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Minutes reveal substance of closed sessions

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners in August 2011 considered making an offer of $1.5 million for the Highland Lake Golf Course and planned to share the cost with the Henderson County Soccer Association.


Under the deal, which the board tentatively approved pending the drafting of a business plan for the proposed soccer complex, the county would have paid $300,000 and the soccer association pay $200,000 up front, with the remaining $1 million financed by the property owner at 4 percent interest over 10 years. At $34,781 per quarter, the loan would have cost a total of $1.39 million. Park Ridge Hospital had agreed to donate $100,000 toward soccer park improvements, according to minutes from October 2011. County officials reported to the board that the soccer park would host up to 16 events a year and would cost $150,000 a year to operate.
The county pulled the plug on the deal three months later amid a firestorm of opposition from neighbors and taxpayers.
The county board's deliberations on the soccer complex and a variety of other issues are detailed in minutes of closed sessions that the Board of Commissioners released on Jan. 7. Under state law, minutes of closed sessions are a public record that elected bodies may withhold "so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session."
The Board of Commissioners voted without discussion to release minutes of closed sessions over the past 18 months in cases where the reason for secrecy no longer applies. The closed sessions involved industrial recruiting, property acquisition, a threatened lawsuit and other matters that the board under state law could discuss in private.

Brewing up a sale
The minutes shed light on the county's role along with the Partnership for Economic Development in sweetening the deal to lure the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to Mills River. The accounts shed light, too, on the fierce competition for the beer-making plant and on the evolving financial arrangements hammered out by the county, the state and brewery owners in the last quarter of 2011.
Sierra Nevada, code-named Big Forest, was seeking its first East Coast brewery location and had chosen Ferncliff Industrial Park on the banks of the French Broad River as a finalist.
Black Mountain was also in the running for the prized industrial plant. "Black Mountain knew they were no longer in the running but continued and the brewery name became public," said the account of a closed meeting on Oct. 19, 2011. "Henderson County has remained confidential and gained huge credibility."
In December 2011, chairman Tommy Thompson told the board that he had spoken with the property owner. He reported that "the original asking price was $119,000 per acre and it was now $60,000 per acre."
In September 2011, the brewery projected an investment of $62.5 million for the land and the brewery, and the company promised to create 100 jobs by 2016. The final agreement, adopted last February, requires Sierra Nevada's to invest $107.5 million and create at least 93 jobs paying $41,579 a year. Henderson County agreed to pay $3.75 million in economic incentives over five years — $1.375 million last year and $267,672 a year through 2017.
"What you're seeing is the evolution of the process," Wyatt said, comparing it to sausage making that goes in one way and comes out in a different form. "Their needs changed and what they wanted changed."
State regulators and industry recruiters also had input.
"This agreement changed a ton from where it started," said county attorney Russ Burrell. "It was round and round about all sorts of things."
He pointed out that the company is on track to surpass the $107 million investment and the number of jobs it initially projected.
"They've already invested more than that and they're going to hire more employees than that on Day 1," Burrell said.

Tuxedo, dogs and prayer

Other closed session minutes show:
• The board discussed adding $500,000 for Tuxedo Community Park last September when it started negotiating the purchase of the Hendersonville Christian School property. The board later dropped that option. An advisory committee is working on plans for Tuxedo Community Park, county parks and recreation director Tim Hopkin, and the county Recreation Advisory Board will review them in February. Board minutes show that the county spent $173,515 to bulldoze the abandoned mill and claim the property under a public nuisance action. The county offered the property for sale for that amount in February 2012. After no buyer responded, County Attorney Russ Burrell reported on March 21, 2012, that the county owned the property. The board offered $750,000 for the Hendersonville Christian School property on Sept. 19, then received a counter-offer from the owner. The board ended up paying $910,000. The sale closed on Jan. 31.
• Three years after sheriff's deputies and animal control officers seized 44 dogs and cats from the Flat Rock home of former All Creatures shelter manager Kim Kappler, the county accepted a $5,000 settlement for fines she owed. Historic Flat Rock Inc. bought the historic Greenville Highway house in a foreclosure sale. Kappler was charged with 44 counts of animal cruelty and 34 counts of violating the county's companion animal law. Historic Flat Rock president Rick Merrill offered to settle Kappler's fines for $5,000, $1,500 of which went to the School Board, according to minutes of a closed meeting on Sept. 6, 2011. The commissioners accepted the offer.
• In February 2012, Burrell reported to the board that he had received a call from the N.C. Civil Liberties Union "in regard to the fact that Henderson County continues to allow prayer during their meeting." The board decided to have prayer instead 15 minutes before the meeting outside at the flagpole, a practice that continues today.