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How local leaders reached the Wingate deal

In a rare joint meeting, the county Board of Commissioners and Hendersonville City Council voted for a five-party agreement for a health sciences building at Pardee's campus. In a rare joint meeting, the county Board of Commissioners and Hendersonville City Council voted for a five-party agreement for a health sciences building at Pardee's campus.

When the proposal to renovate the old Grey Hosiery Mill for Wingate University fizzled last October, it looked like the college would pack up from its leased space on King Street and move to Blue Ridge Community College.

 

A month after a developer told the Hendersonville City Council that Wingate had declined the proposal to use the historic mill, Wingate president Jerry McGee appeared before the Henderson County Board of Commissioners.
The college had outgrown its rented space in two buildings downtown, he said, and in order to expand it needed to move. Specifically, he went on, the college would like
"a state-of-the-art high-tech facility which would take care of our current and future needs."
Impressed by the college's growth, its potential to add more programs and its high-paying professor jobs, commissioners ordered County Manager Steve Wyatt to work with Wingate and find a space for a new building. That was bad news in City Hall, where City Council members faced the prospect of losing a prize economic development addition and attractor of young people.
It took weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiation, late-night phone calls and a roller coaster of emotions and at times ill will, city and county leaders said in interviews. But finally it worked. The deal reached critical mass.
The city and county announced an unprecedented joint agreement April 4 that keeps Wingate in town and adds BRCC's allied health program and Pardee Hospital clinics in a new 60,000-square-foot building on Sixth Avenue West at Oak Street.
"City Council basically said their goal was to keep Wingate in Hendersonville," City Manager John Connet said. "I just started a conversation with Steve Wyatt about looking for a site for Wingate. So we developed a partnership where we helped acquire the property."

'Free land'
Wyatt said he knew from his contact with Wingate president Jerry McGee that the mill property "was never under consideration." He also knew that Wingate wanted to move by January 2016, a tight time frame when it comes to acquiring land, financing, designing a building and construction. But Wyatt also had a solid hand. He had access to "free land," property the county already owned at BRCC. And he knew that BRCC needed more space for mechatronics, its hot new factory-training program.
"I came up with the idea that if we do something jointly — with Blue Ridge health sciences programs and Wingate's —that would free up space for mechatronics at Blue Ridge and we could get that two-fer, kill two birds with one stone," Wyatt said. "I bounced the idea off Jerry and he said, 'I like it. We'd prefer to stay in Hendersonville but that works fine, at BRCC.'"
Meeting at a place where a lot of county business gets transacted — West First Pizza — Wyatt pitched the idea of a joint health sciences building to BRCC President Molly Parkhill.
"That's intriguing," she said.
Wyatt was on fire for it.
"Think about it," he said. "You could have a kid from Hendersonville High School get a doctorate degree without leaving the county. Go to Hendersonville High School, go to BRCC, go to Wingate, boom, or nursing or whatever. So I tell the board and they say, 'Great.' We're going to Blue Ridge Community College. We got free land, land's already paid for."

'What will it take?'

Connet and the council members did not want to be the goats who let Wingate get away.
Connett dialed Wyatt.
"He called me and he said, 'We really don't want this thing to move out of town,'" Wyatt recalled. "He said, 'What will it take?' I said, 'The land. It's that simple. We've got a great location (at BRCC). But it ain't going to be on the railroad track. I said it has to be an acceptable, first-class location. And I said, 'Are you serious?' And he said, 'Let me get back to you.'"
The city manager, still not a year on the job, asked his new bosses how serious they were about keeping Wingate. Serious, they said. By now, an election had shifted the balance of power on the City Council to an aggressive pro-business majority. Newly elected Councilman Jeff Miller said he was in favor of it but the details remained to be worked out.


'Why not Pardee?'

Connet had committed the city, tentatively at least, to write a check for land. Where? Wyatt went looking. He called up Pardee CEO Jay Kirby and explained the hunt.
"Why not at Pardee?" Kirby said.
"So we drove around and looked at places," Wyatt said. "And we found this place (on Sixth Avenue at Oak Street, beside Pardee's medical office building). And we went, 'Hmm. Envision that.'
"So we got McGee. He has veto power. We take him over there. Loved it. On a hospital campus. Never been done before. Never heard of it. Don't know if it's been done in the United States of America. So I go to Connet and said 'I found your land. If you can work it out, you got a deal.'"
Connet warmed to the idea. He could sell the idea, he thought, to his bosses.
"We had a site with parking availability, where we could build a building for what we need, use most of the site for building and have adjacent parking," he said. "There was also the ability for the students to work together with Pardee and Steve brought in Blue Ridge."
The available parking in the underused medical clinic parking lot was critical.
"They would have needed to buy 4 to 5 acres had they not found property with that much parking and the ability to add more," Miller said.
The city optioned the land. That was the easy part. Council members were willing to write the check for $650,000 but they wanted the money paid back. Wyatt reminded Connet of the ace he held: free land. Still, council members were anxious. So Wyatt and the Board of Commissioners finally agreed to pay the city back after the county itself pays off a 15-year construction loan. A deal was close. But not quite done.
"It wasn't always a piece of cake," Miller said. "We yelled at each sometimes, more than once."
Officials at Wingate, Pardee and BRCC, council members and commissioners had questions and demands. Wyatt was fed up.
"Tuesday night (Connet) called me back and said 'I got one more thing.' I said, 'No you don't. I'm p---ed off. We're going to the community college. We can save $800,000.' Remember we started with free land. He was trying to get two more votes. But anyway he called me back the next day and said, 'We're going.'"
Now Wyatt faced a hard deadline on logistics.
All parties to the agreement were gearing up to announce the deal on Friday morning at 10 after formal votes by the Board of Commissioners and City Council. Under North Carolina law, called special meetings have to be announced to the press and the public 48 hours in advance.
"So then it's Wednesday morning," Wyatt said. "At 9:59 that (48-hour) notice went out. I texted (Connet) at like 9:30 and I said, 'Are we still a go?' And he texted me back and he said, 'Go.'"
Even then, Miller said, Connet wasn't sure whether he had all the council members on board. But he knew he had a majority. Some council members wanted the city to get all its money back. Miller said he did, too, but wasn't willing to sink the deal over it.
Both Miller and Volk said in interviews said the purchase won't require a tax increase. The money will come from the city's fund balance, which at $6.4 million is far above the recommended by state regulators.
"I just think this is a piece of what I dreamed of when I wanted to work for city government," Miller said. "How else can you get something to work this fast? If it had gone to the state or federal level, it had been our grandkids going to this school."
Wyatt said he was glad it was over.
"Somebody asked me why this was so hard — because this was hard — and I said, 'Because if it was easy, somebody would have already done it,'" he said.