Remnants of last month’s conversation about the Centre 75 Business Park in Loudon continued to be the central topic of conversation at Thursday’s Loudon County Economic Development Agency board meeting.
“As everyone probably knows at this point, we do have a contract on the Centre 75 lot 9,” Jack Qualls, EDA executive director, said. “Part of that negotiated contract was signed last week — 60 days due diligence period. Our negotiation with that was to conduct a new survey of the property, which has been ordered. … Also, just to update a phase one environmental document — that has also been ordered and is in the process of being completed.”
Qualls had also ordered a geotechnical firm to examine the area, but the influx of rain has been an issue.
During a Loudon City Council meeting May 30, Qualls was asked to “clean up the contract” for the Centre 75 lot. Qualls assured he reworded or deleted items in the contract that “reflect what was being practiced,” such as mowing.
Even with the amended contract, Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens was concerned about the potential reaction of Loudon City Councilman Johnny James, who holds an agricultural lease on the property.
In order to close on the property for the buyer, an unnamed automotive distributor, James’ lease on lot 9 must be terminated. However, the board suspects James has been growing soybeans on the property, which can take up to six months to harvest.
“It seems to me like this board, at one time or the other, entered into an agreement, and I get it — Johnny’s the business man,” Aikens said. “It just seems like we certainly have put ourselves in a bad position here, at least in the industrial park property or whatever it is. I’ve never understood why we did it other than him keeping it mowed. I know it’s a different administration, a different board, but it just looks to me like we’re putting ourselves into an awful lot of trouble here. We don’t need to be in the leasing business. I just don’t get it. I do, but I don’t.”
Board member Charlie Bettis explained that under a previous contract, only hay and grass were grown on the property. Since the property was leased to James, soybeans have since been growing on the property, making it harder for future developers to begin construction.
“I think if it would have been kept as hay and grass, we wouldn’t be having any issues,” Bettis said. “You can cut hay real quick and get it off of there real quick.”
Bettis estimated the soybeans had been planted in April, which is early for bean crops.
“Typically, beans are not planted this early,” he said. “They are planted later in the year, and I’m talking July the Fourth until frost. This has been a very early bean crop that’s been put out.”
The discussion then moved to addressing how and if crops will be harvested. The intended buyer for the lot wants to close on the property by Aug. 20, and James would have to be notified of the termination of the lease 30 days prior. With the strict deadline, Qualls emphasized the importance of acting fast.
“If you’re saying that, you’re really tick-tocking two weeks from now,” Qualls said.
Board member Eddie Simpson said James’ position in the county may influence how the board proceeds.
“I think we have to ask ourselves a question,” Simpson said. “If this lease was someone that was from Knoxville instead of somebody from here … what would we do? I don’t think we would even hesitate in saying that that contract is not fulfilled.”
Simpson also predicted the board will be involved with the costs to mow and prepare the lot for future buyers.
“This board is just absorbing more and more responsibility for him,” he said.
After nearly two hours of deliberation, a motion was made by Loudon Mayor Jeff Harris to table the amendment to the contract. Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw seconded the motion. Harris also motioned a termination of lease, effective immediately, to which board member John Evans seconded.
“Hopefully the board remembers that next year when this lease comes due and look at all the negatives,” Evans said. “Not leasing again I think would be the best thing we could do.”