Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Spilling the beans on Chimney Rock

Gov. Mike Easley’s announcement in Rutherford County Monday about the state’s purchase of privately owned Chimney Rock Park must have been the sort of thing that gives event-planners and spinmeisters heartburn.
The cat got out of the bag early, leaving Easley to announce news that was already on the wires an hour earlier. And the names of anonymous donors of several million dollars that made the deal work got out, too. More on that in a moment.
The Easley administration had worked on the purchase of the 996-acre tract from the Morse family for a couple of years, but things didn’t always go smoothly. After the state appraised the tract at $20 million in value and negotiations bogged down, one person close to the talks says, “The wheels just about came off.” The reason: The state was leery of paying more than the appraised value, and the owners believe it worth a lot more. At one point they listed their property with Sotheby’s Cape Fear for $55 million.
Attorney Michael Leonard of Winston-Salem, who serves on a number of boards of environmental organizations, said the deal was saved at one point thanks to Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke, a lawyer with Moore and Van Allen. Clarke grew up at nearby Hickory Nut Gap Farm, the family place of the late state legislator and U.S. Rep. Jamie Clarke, Dumont Clarke’s father.
Dumont Clarke knew all about the rich ecological diversity of Chimney Rock Park. He was also an attorney for the sellers, and he called Michael Leonard at one point suggesting that The Conservation Fund might be able to help salvage the negotiation. Leonard said he, Conservation Fund official Dick Luddington of Chapel Hill and others stepped in to help with the negotiations. Just before Christmas, he said, the deal was ready to go through. There were rumors in Raleigh that it would happen before the end of the year but, Leonard said, it proved impossible to get all the papers drawn up until after the new year began.
Fast forward to Monday morning. The Easley administration had held its breath, but word didn’t leak out about the announcement until the governor’s office was ready. It put out a news release shortly before 8 a.m. advising news organizations Easley would make an announcement at 11:30 a.m. in Chimney Rock Park. That wasn’t for publication, just an advisory, but it was obvious that a deal was about to be announced.
Trouble is, a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was soon quoted in a wire story an hour before the governor’s announcement with some key details. It noted, among other things, that the $24 million purchase price was aided by an anonymous donation of $2.35 million.
The AP story left Easley in the position of presiding over an announcement that had been pretty well announced an hour earlier. The news release his office put out in Raleigh at 11:30 a.m. – the hour of the announcement in Rutherford County – also noted the $2.35 million anonymous contribution.
Trouble was, word was already out on that, too. Shortly after his arrival, Easley had been introduced to the donors – Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, who have done an enormous amount of good for North Carolina’s environment over the years. Reporters may have noticed. During the announcement ceremony, several officials recognized the Stanbacks. Anyone familiar with the state’s environment would have put two and two together and guessed that the Stanbacks were the donors. Easley himself seemed to confirm it. As the Asheville Citizen-Times reported today, “Easley described the Stanbacks as ‘guardian angels’ who helped bridge a gap in what the state could offer and what the Morse family would sell for.”
Our environmental writer, Bruce Henderson, naturally asked the Stanbacks if they were the donors, and Fred Stanback acknowledged they were.
That’s the story about how the state scooped the governor on his own announcement, and how the governor all but confirmed the identify of the “anonymous” donors.


Sharon Horrigan, Asheville, N. said...

I hope Gov. Easley didn't let a little thing like the news leaking early about the state's acquisition of Chimney Rock Park ruin his day. He, state lawmakers, the Morse family and all the donors who worked to make this happen should be extremely proud. Not only did the state strike an incredible deal--an 862-acre tract of land in neighboring Fairview was purchased by South Carolina-based real estate development company The Cliffs for $40 million in mid-January--they also preserved a view and ecosystem for all to enjoy--not just those who can afford to purchase a house in a Cliffs development.

Anonymous said...

I knew that the STATE was going to buy Chimney Rock this summer; I even asked the Chimney Rock people and they had a fit. They told me " The State did not buy it and shut my Southern Pecan pie hole" well Im a Yankee but I love Pecan pie so I didnt argue. Anyway we also got the TOYOTA plant in Greensboro or east of the TRIAD ; No i dont nknow anyone I have clairvoyance.

Tim said...

Good Job! :)

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