Downtown hotel details remain murky


Staff Writer

Monday, July 1, 2019

A peculiar meeting to even the most versed attendees, the Feb. 11 City Council gathering began with Mayor David Combs announcing the launch of an investigation into City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s management style and spending.

It ended with a surprise addition to the agenda: A $70 million public-private partnership to build a parking deck and hotel on the grounds of the Rocky Mount Event Center.

David Hunt, president of Hunt Services, presented his vision: A new tier 1 hotel with a full pool and amenities, 20,000 square feet of retail space with “condos on top, like in Charlotte, Memphis and Atlanta,” a parking deck with “660 to 1,000” parking spaces, a second hotel in three to five years, a splash park and a “serenity park for those who have served in uniform.”

A site plan, “approved by City Engineer Jesse Allen Williams,” was shown to the audience. It had a Home2 by Hilton, a Courtyard by Marriott, a raised pedestrian bridge and a “public space” placed over land owned by the family of Councilman Andre Knight.

Hunt Services is a Jackson, Tennessee, development company. According to its website, the company has developed four hotels, six restaurants and an office building. All except three are in Tennessee and none in North Carolina.

On multiple occasions, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, Assistant City Manager Natasha Hampton-Clayton and Director of Community and Business Development Landis Faulcon — who is on administrative leave — told the Telegram that Hunt came to Rocky Mount unsolicited and presented them with his hotel proposal.

At a more recent presentation of the hotel project, Cedric Johnson of BWC Consulting said that his firm, working on behalf of the city, approached Hunt about doing a downtown hotel project. Johnson said BWC acted as matchmaker.

Last summer before striking a deal with Hunt, Small-Toney and Faulcon attended a conference in Miami of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers, an association of which Hunt is a member.

The project has been presented as a public-private partnership, in which the city’s contribution would be paying for a brand-new parking deck on top of the existing parking lot at the Event Center at an expense to taxpayers of $17.6 million.

A full three months after the February presentation, on May 13, the city took the first steps in what is mandated by state statute in order to pursue such a partnership: Producing a Request for Qualifications.

The purpose of the RFQ, per the N.C. School of Government, is to find the best qualified partner to work with on joint ventures. Given the clear timeline, the RFQ was written to only allow Hunt Services to successfully respond. It required a site plan, construction schedule, hotel brand to be used, design specifications and detailed resume of the developer.

Only seven days were given to developers to respond. From documents obtained by the Telegram, at least two other developers expressed interest in submitting a response but requested more time. Both requests were denied.

Also, the RFQ was published the morning after the council approved it — but ad space in the newspaper would have had to had been secured days in advance.

Back to the Feb. 11 meeting, Small-Toney asked the council to approve a Letter of Intent to move forward with the project.

Councilwoman Chris Miller expressed reservations about approving the letter, citing fiscal concerns, but said “since this is non-binding and we aren’t committing any funds at this stage” she supported it.

The matter passed 5-2 with W.B. Bullock and the retiring Tom Rogers voting against it.

Rogers said he was uncomfortable with the risk involved. He said it could be difficult to borrow money in the future and there hadn’t been enough study.

Knight voted in favor of the hotel. The proposal involved land owned by his family, but he wasn’t legally obligated to recuse himself.

The letter of intent states that “Hunt Services shall be responsible for any other real property reflected on the site plan,” and mentions specifically “two such parcels.”

According to property tax maps and the site plan, those two lots are St. John AME Zion Church and Holy Hope, the church property owned by the Knight family. No purchase price was mentioned in the letter of intent.

A map provided to city officials in July 2018 shows the church property would be converted into retail space. An updated map released to the public in February shows the lot will be public space.

While Knight is adamant about the church’s immediate future, he remains ambiguous when it comes to the church’s fate down the line.

The letter of intent states Hunt is responsible for purchasing the two other properties at the site beside the city-owned parking lot. which can only be St. John and Holy Hope. St. John is now up for sale.

Hunt told the Telegram last week that the hotel chains he represents want to build the parking deck because they want to be in complete control of any project, including land ownership.

The Telegram asked Knight via text messages in mid-March three questions about Holy Hope.

Telegram: Is Holy Hope for sale? Knight: No.

Telegram: The site plan calls for public space where Holy Hope is. Does this mean the Holy Hope Heritage Center is part of the plan? Knight: Perhaps. Up to the developer.

Telegram: Would you ever see the property be sold? Knight: Not in the near future.

Knight later elaborated on his plans for Holy Hope.

“My mom purchased the property to preserve an important element of Rocky Mount history and heritage,” he said. “Her desire is to see everyone benefit from the space where collaboration between whites and blacks to worship and serve the community was encouraged even in antebellum times.

“I am excited to see continued development in and around the historic Douglas Block. As with other property owners, I can confirm that there have been discussions with Holy Hope Episcopal Church regarding the proposed hotel development at the corner of Albemarle and Goldleaf and appropriate, compatible uses.

“To answer your question directly, Holy Hope is not for sale and there is no plan for it to be sold in the near term. That being said, it is my understanding that confidential negotiations are ongoing with the developer for an appropriate civic/public use, consistent with the site plan that has been presented, that is respectful to the history and mission of Holy Hope and the integrity of the Rocky Mount Central Historic District.

“I am sure that once those negotiations have been finalized, you will know as soon as or shortly after I know.”

Detailed questions about the cost of the project sent to the city Wednesday weren’t answered by the end of the day Friday.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series on the Rocky Mount City Council’s plan to approve an $18 million downtown economic development project. A vote on the project is set for July 8.