Monday, April 15, 2024

Cheetah offers county 74 parking spots ‘at no cost to the taxpayer’ to avoid eminent domain

Cheetah Gentlemen’s Club has offered to provide the county use of its 74 parking spots. (Port City Daily/Peter Castagno)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The Cheetah Club is responding to the county’s authorization of the eminent domain purchase of its 134 College Road property by offering the county 74 parking spots for free use during the day.

CATCH UP: ‘Our building is completely full’: NHC argues parking needs justify eminent domain of strip club

“We’re a perfect partner for parking because the club doesn’t open until 6 p.m.,” lawyer Mike Barber of Barber & Associates told Port City Daily Monday.

Barber is the counsel for Cheetah’s private ownership group — consisting of two primary owners and other secondary owners. The group is working on the case with the College Road property owner Jerry Reid of New Hanover Golf & Travel.  

Commissioners approved its intent of a $2.3 million eminent domain purchase of Cheetah Gentlemen’s Club to use for additional parking at its adjacent government center last Monday. Reid told Port City Daily last week he was never informed of the government center’s parking needs before the meeting. Barber confirmed Monday the Cheetah Club owners also didn’t know about the move until news articles published information regarding it.

The county didn’t place the item on the agenda ahead of its Nov. 6 vote. County Manager Chris Coudriet raised the motion at the end of the meeting by identifying the property’s county tax ID number only, not using the business name. Barber criticized the authorization as inadequately transparent and said there was “no way the commissioners would have memorized the parcel number.”

Last week to Port City Daily, Commissioner Dane Scalise rejected the notion the vote wasn’t transparent, stating it was entered into the record in a public forum. He also said the newly built government center parking area was “completely full” with people often looping the lot to find a space. 

According to county spokesperson Alex Riley, a number of factors have caused a parking shortage at the site, including increased demand at the government center. The center opened its doors in April after undergoing construction for two years. 

It was planned with 250 parking spots, according to the county’s 2021 development agreement with Cape Fear FD Stonewater, a partnership between Wilmington’s Cape Fear Commercial and a Virginia-based real estate firm, FD Stonewater.  

The agreement states: “Said government center improvement agreements shall include adequate, nonexclusive parking to support the same operations planned there on, either on or adjacent to the property.”

During a July 2021 public hearing on the proposed development agreement for the new government center, Cape Fear Commercial co-founder Brian Eckel represented Cape Fear FD Stonewater and said he believed the facility’s 250 planned surface spaces would be sufficient for employees, the public, and large functions.

The county would not answer Port City Daily about how many more spots it needs today.

Riley said the increased demand has come from multiple factors, including population growth, more visits than anticipated to the government center, a growing staff, as well as decreases in remote work and the impending addition of the $5.6 million board of elections building, also to be built nearby. Constructing the 7,500-square-foot building was an amendment to the county’s contract with Cape Fear FD Stonewater earlier this year. 

“These factors have greatly impacted the amount of available parking at the site, which necessitated the resolution at Monday’s meeting to exercise eminent domain as a proactive measure to address these needs,” he concluded. 

The county did not answer additional questions Port City Daily put forth on numerous occasions in the last week, including when the county became aware of these factors, how many people worked for the county when the site was approved versus its current number of staff, what specific date it realized more parking was needed, how much it would cost to demolish the Cheetah Club and build a new lot, or if a parking deck was considered.

Cheetah worked with the county on easements, power lines, tree removal and landscaping during the government center’s building phase. According to Barber, never did the county express a potential need for additional parking during the process.

“There was no indication to us at any time that there was a need to be a partner in parking,” he said. “Let me emphasize, the first we learned of the county’s interest in our property was at 1:30 a.m., after the commissioner meeting [last week].”

Barber had one resolution for the county that wouldn’t impact the Cheetah building: “We will enter into a shared parking agreement fully making 74 spaces available to them tomorrow.” 

He added it would come “at no cost to the taxpayer.”

When PCD asked for the county’s response to Barber’s suggestion, Riley wrote in an email: “Regarding the recent actions to address parking at the government center, the county has addressed this topic in previous statements and responses and is not in a position to comment further at this time.”

Barber told Port City Daily the group has retained law firm Brooks Pierce, which is currently drafting a shared parking agreement to offer the government entity. They hired the firm because of its expertise in eminent domain law. Barber added he believes the county’s $2.3 million valuation of the property is insufficient.

“I think the number that they reflected in their late night vote was far inferior to what the market value is of this property,” he said. 

In a statement released to media last week, Coudriet expressed: “The law ensures that the property owner will receive fair market value, aligning with our responsibility to act in a balanced and lawful manner.”

Barber said he has remained unable to contact Coudriet or any other representative of the county since and has only had contact with counsel from Ward & Smith, the law firm the county hired to handle the issue. A representative from Ward & Smith said he could not speak to Port City Daily on the subject.

“I truly believe what set this off was State Treasurer Folwell’s comment about the government center being built close to a gentlemen’s club, just an offhand comment,” Barber told Port City Daily. “I think that’s what triggered this.”

In September, Folwell criticized the county for building its new government center, a public-private partnership with Cape Fear FD Stonewater, in close proximity to the adult club. It came in response to the county defending itself on approaching Project Grace as a public-private partnership, to control what goes in the redevelopment of the downtown block where a new library and museum will be constructed.

“You built your new county building beside a men’s club, so I don’t see much evidence you care about the development next to you, if you build your county building next to a strip club,” Folwell said at a Local Government Commission meeting for approval of Project Grace’s financing.

However, that wasn’t the first time a gentlemen’s club located in the vicinity had been brought up. According to June 15, 2020 commissioner meeting minutes, there was a discussion between the county and Cape Fear FD Stonewater about what types of businesses would be permitted in the private sector of the government center project. Stonewater bought 7.5 acres for mixed-use development, to consist of residences, with 5% going to workforce housing, along with commercial space.

The minutes note: “Mr. Eckel stated that he can assure the Board a gentlemen’s club would not be allowed and is willing to work with staff to draft a list of permitted and excluded uses.”

From the commissioners’ June 15, 2020 meeting.

The county adamantly maintains its parking needs are the sole reason to utilize eminent domain. State law requires eminent domain to only be enacted if the government can reasonably show the land is for public use only.

Folwell told Port City Daily Monday he was opposed to the eminent domain decision.

“I have never been in favor of eminent domain,” he said. “Cape Fear Commercial and the county knew that there was a strip club there. If they need parking, they should get the taxpayers of New Hanover County’s property that is next door back from Brian Eckel of Cape Fear Commercial. I am sure that would be millions cheaper based on what they let him have it for.”

Eckel and Cape Fear Commercial senior vice president Mike Brown reached out to Port City Daily after press and said they are not involved with the eminent domain decision.

“We learned of the eminent domain process on November 7th with the rest of the community,” the statement noted. “We have not been privy to any discussions regarding this process. We understand there is a commercial real estate broker working with New Hanover County and we can confirm this broker is not affiliated with our firm.”

Coudriet released in a statement last week the county needs to “better accommodate our citizens” and “exercising eminent domain to acquire the neighboring property is a legal and measured step.”

Riley said the county will release more information as it becomes available; commissioners didn’t respond Monday to PCD’s calls regarding Cheetah’s latest offer.

Old government center versus new

The new government center was built directly next to the old facility, which was demolished earlier this year. The former building served as a strip mall in the ’80s until the county government located there in 2002. 

Its new four-story government center contains almost 137,000 square feet of space on a 15-acre lot.

The use of eminent domain has spurred questions about how planning staff and developers did not anticipate parking needs during the $52-million development process.

Since the government center lies within city jurisdiction, the City of Wilmington technical review committee had to approve the site plans to ensure its regulations were met. According to memo notes from Nov. 20, 2020, suggestions were put forth to SEPI Engineering and Construction’s Marc Arcuri, also working on the project, by former associate city planner Pat O’Mahony.

O’Mahony wrote: “Provide parking calculations for the entire development as a whole, including calculations for CDMU (commercial district mixed-use) residential spaces at one per unit.”

It called for an “updated parking study with revised submittal.” Eckel told Port City Daily one had been completed and said he would send it to the news source, but it was not received by press.

Also, an Oct. 16, 2020 construction document from LS3P — which designed the government center — stated parking availability would be a “discussion item of significance,” to have with representatives including the owner, construction manager, architect and their consultants, contractor and its superintendent, supplier, and any major subcontractors.

The county did not answer how many parking spots were at the old facility versus how many are at the current building.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield told PCD last week the commissioners had been deliberating parking problems for months. PCD found one email in the public terminal with a complaint from a county employee dated Oct. 23, 2023, instructing visitors on what to expect upon arrival on site.

“Parking at the Government Center is terrible at best, so below are specific instructions for the students to park and to access the building along with pictures(attached) outlining where to go,” Assistant Emergency Management Director Anna McCray wrote, clearly stating not to park in nearby Tin Pen Alley or Breaktime lots. “You will be towed if you park there.”

Barfield added he was unaware of any parking problems in the government center’s former location. The latest issues, he surmised, were caused by layout differences between the new and old sites.

“Where the county owned the whole 15 acres, we sold half of that,” Barfield said, referring the partial sale to Cape Fear FD Stonewater. “So now we have 7.5 acres of land to work with. We’re also building, adding on to the Ten Pin Alley building with a board of elections facility and recognizing that we’re now a bit crunched. It’s a different layout. Some things you just don’t foresee until you get there, you know.”

According to June 2020 commissioner meeting minutes, Cape Fear FD Stonewater’s Eckel said there was potential for a parking deck to be built on the back of the site with a future office building. He told Port City Daily last week, the parking deck is not currently in consideration.

“It’s off the table — for now,” Eckel said Friday. “It was in the plan for potential future development at some point. It’s not in the current plans.”

Also according to the June 2020 minutes, he said the mixed-use development on the second parcel would have approximately 350 parking spaces, with the ability to absorb overflow parking from the government center.

Riley didn’t address Port City Daily’s request about the overflow idea floated back then.

As for what’s next, the Cheetah Club landowner, Reid, can accept or reject the county’s offer and appeal the eminent domain request, leading to a broader litigation. Barber said he didn’t want to speculate about a future lawsuit, but said the Cheetah ownership team will “evaluate all the remedies available.”

“It is my hope that we simply provide some parking spaces and satisfy the represented needs of the county building and we continue to remain good neighbors,” Barber said. “But I think we’re a long way away from a resolution on this.”

[Ed note: This article has been updated to include statements from State Treasurer Dale Folwell and Cape Fear Commercial co-founder Brian Eckel and senior vice president Mike Brown.]


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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