The Fort Payne City Council voted March 16 to give DeKalb County an acre of land on which to construct a new tourism center so it is visible from the southern interchange of Interstate 59. Council member Phillip Smith voted against this, stating that the city should get more out of the deal since it will take up valuable commercial property that could be used to generate sales tax.
Mayor Brian Baine said his predecessor, Larry Chesser, reached a verbal agreement with the DeKalb County Commission President Ricky Harcrow to give the county the land, with the understanding that it would be ready to build on, but Baine and others from the previous council said they weren’t aware of being obligated.
The county moved 1,250 loads of dirt to the property, which is located between the old Jefferson’s and the current Dairy Queen.
Public Works Director Tim Williams said, “[The county] needed a place to move [the dirt] and called asking if we had a place they could put it, and I knew we were looking at building that property up at some point so it was a win-win for the city and the county by putting it there. It gave them a close location so they didn’t have to drive a long way to get rid of it and they were able to get their project underway.”
The Council considered asking Williams to get with the County Engineer Ben Luther to arrange for him to sign off on city work so the county, rather than the city, would assume liability if anything went wrong. Instead, the donation of the land can proceed as long as the county itself conducts the necessary site prep work, mainly due to concerns about stretching city resources too thin.
Council President Pro Tem Lynn Brewer said, “I know Tim is Superman, but I’d rather him focus on getting those new soccer fields done and let the county do what they need to do to the lot if we are, in good faith, donating it to them.”
Williams said the land comes out to roughly an acre at 433 feet long with 60 feet on the west end and 150 feet on the east end with the soil filled out. The county wants to build a 1,200 square foot building, which he estimated would take up between 150-200 feet of the lot once parking spaces surround it. The county wants to build on the far side of the lot so it is at least partially visible from I-59.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved filling the lot out to the edge of the flood zone, Williams said.
In opposing the project, Smith asked, “Wouldn’t it be economically better if we sold those two lots to a business? The city would get the proceeds from selling the land and also the sales tax from businesses that locate there. Isn’t that pretty prime real estate? I’ve never been in the retail sales business, but there’s a lot of traffic that goes by that lot.”
Council President Walter Watson said his preference would be for the county to take the land as is, but there’s also value in improving relations with the county commission.
“I just think we need to make a decision and go with it,” Baine said. “Fort Payne sits inside DeKalb County. It’s a win/win to have that tourist building by the interstate and being on this side of the interstate is a plus for Fort Payne because it will pull people toward the city.”
Reached Friday morning, Harcrow said the understanding was that the city would prep the land itself, but he understands it was too near the end of Chesser’s term to sign any written agreements. Harcrow said he is confident the county will still proceed with adding a new tourism building there, aiming for one to be completed by Spring 2022. A company interested in the old tourism building, which flooded last Easter Sunday, has until Tuesday to make a decision, but another prospect is interested if that one passes.
Harcrow also said he looks forward to speaking with Mayor Baine and having a good relationship with the City of Fort Payne.