The old Zen’s building on Neville Street and vacant lot across the street will now become property of the city of Beckley for the purchase price of $1,110,000 following the second and final reading of an ordinance at Tuesday evening’s common council meeting.
This purchase, which has caused much controversy throughout the city, will be leased to Tammy Jordan, CEO of Fruits of Labor — a culinary arts training center and cafe that helps those in recovery gain a skill and find employment in the restaurant business.
Mayor Rob Rappold once again became the tie-breaking vote as the council was divided between the no votes of council members Tom Sopher, Cody Reedy and Janine Bullock and the yes votes of council members Sherrie Hunter, Kevin Price and Bob Canter. Councilmember Robert Dunlap, citing an ethics violation due to his work in real estate law, did not vote.
Five citizens spoke out against the purchase during the meeting, including Dr. Kristi Dumas, Christina Baisden, Danielle Stewart, Adam Taylor and Brian Brown.
Dumas stated that the city shouldn’t be purchasing properties at over $1 million when residents in under-served areas of the city are struggling. In the Hartley Avenue area, residents have been pleading with the city to address flooding concerns — prompting the NAACP to file a class-action lawsuit, Dumas said.
“Voters are watching like never before,” she reminded the council.
Baisden told the council that this vote is showing that “Beckley is not business-friendly,” while Stewart stated that the purchase is “blatant favoritism” of one business over another and an “economic bailout” for current Zen’s building owner Jenny Weng.
“She made a bad investment and her investment failed,” Stewart said. “Councilmembers please put the needs of the other 17,000 residents above the need to bail out one business owner.”
Taylor, a local attorney, stated that the downtown area of Beckley does not feel like a safe place due to loiterers and those struggling with drug addiction.
“It’s not a good area for business . . . it’s not a good environment for anybody to thrive,” he said.
Brown, a local real estate agent, stated he doesn’t believe the city should be funding private businesses like Fruits of Labor. He added that there are many other properties, with a much lower price tag, that the council should have looked at before making this decision.
“I think it’s important that we become good stewards of the finances that we have been entrusted,” Brown said. “There’s so many other opportunities for us to spend our money in much better ways than to invest 1.1 million dollars of the hard-earned money of these people of this community than there.” Further, he said that two years ago the council was unwilling to help Stratton Elementary students fund a field trip to New York, but now they are willing to purchase a building.
“I think that sets a bad precedent,” Brown said.
Those speaking in favor of the purchase included attorney Alan Larrick, executive director of the New River Gorge Development Authority Jina Belcher and President/CEO of the Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce Michelle Rotellini.
Larrick stated he would enjoy having a cafe in downtown Beckley. He said it may help prevent loitering from “vagrants” and provide a meeting place for those doing business. His law firm is located beside the Zen’s building.
Belcher stated that the purchase will help revitalize the downtown area and Rottellini said there are many public/private partnerships throughout the nation and that these partnerships are important “catalysts of change.”
“That is the type of change that will get the ball rolling for us in downtown Beckley,” Rottellini said.
In response to a question from councilmember Reedy regarding the lease arrangement with Jordan, Rappold responded that an agreement will be discussed at a later date, but that he estimates her lease being less than $5,000 a month.
“Since I’ve been mayor, I have mentioned to each of our council people, this council and previous council, that the city is interested in a public/private partnership to spur economic development,” Rappold said.
Reedy responded that before The Great Race rolled into the city several weeks ago, officers had to run the homeless away. He said the city should focus its efforts on city-wide issues, rather than investing in one location.
Everyone is welcome to attend Beckley Common Council meetings both in person and through Web-ex, an online platform. They take place on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at city hall.