Jim Benson is the new owner of the former Allen Bennett Memorial Hospital site, 313 Memorial Drive, with an offer of $3.010 million after one of the most bizarre and contentious public property sales conducted by Greer City Council.
City Council approved second reading on the ordinance on Jan. 24 when Brian Martin, attorney for Benson, increased the offer $5,000 more than what JBM verbally proposed ($3.005 million) on Dec. 13.
The sale of the property closed on Jan. 27, according to the city.
Martin presented Benson’s offer during the council meeting. “I do have some additional information regarding the project, ‘Project Forest’ that includes information, more specifics on the planned development on the property, and job creation that I would like to pass out to you,” Martin told council.
As Martin passed out the envelopes four council members opened them – Jay Arrowood, Wayne Griffin, Wrylie Bettis and Judy Albert. That information, according to the South Carolina Sunshine Law, should have been made public. Mayor Rick Danner did not share the information when requested at the end of executive session on Jan. 24.
Meanwhile, attorney Kris Cato stated minutes earlier, at the Jan. 24 meeting that JBM, “reiterates its November 22 offer of $2.2 million.” That meant JBM’s $3.005 million offer made on Dec. 13 was off the table. Cato had no idea Martin was going to offer the highest bid.
Cato was asked why she returned to JBM’s Nov. 22 offer and would only reply “no comment."
Benson’s intent, according to Danner, is to expand an automobile dealership across the street on Wade Hampton Boulevard from his Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep Ram dealership. Benson also has a Fiat dealership and in the past the addition of Alfa Romeo was suggested as a future brand.
The city invested more than $1 million in the former hospital site since the Greenville Hospital System gifted it to Greer in 2010. It is undetermined what the city will net from the sale and pending litigation fees.
“We’ve got associated costs, legal costs, whatever,” Danner said. “Mr. Benson’s offer includes a donation to help us start the work at Kids Planet. We will also wind up with some money which we can decide to use with recreation, cultural arts, economic development or whatever Council decides.”
Danner said funds paid to date on the site have come from the city’s reserve.
What had been almost a 7-year tumultuous effort to put the property back on the city’s tax roll and create jobs, the usually calm economic development process, was turned topsy-turvy when attorneys for JBM Leasing LLC, filed an injunction against the City of Greer naming Danner, Ed Driggers (City Administrator) and Reno Deaton (Executive Development), as defendants charging among other things, negotiating in secrecy.
Deaton has filed a motion to dismiss JBM’s claim. It is scheduled to be heard Thursday in Greenville County Common Pleas Court.
Cato, from Columbia, and Jim Carpenter, from Greenville headed the legal team of JBM Leasing LLC, with Mark Escude, Sr. the owner. Escude owns, Nissan of Greer, Hyundai of Greer, Kia of Greer and Toyota of Greer. A Nissan dealership was planned for the site, according to JBM.
Council approved Benson’s offer with Albert the lone dissenter. “I just figured something that big should take a little more time to discuss,” Albert said.
“We’ve had that piece of property for almost seven years,” Danner said. “We’ve sold it and unsold it a time or two,” Danner said. “We made a decision to remove the buildings.
“Through a process just for proposals for 90-120 days, we received none. If either one of those dealers come to us and say we want to put a dealership there and we will give you $1.5 million, they might own it today,” Danner said. “Both offers were made within 24-48 hours after the request for proposal process closed.”
Danner explained the sequence leading up to Benson being awarded ownership of the former hospital site, Martin’s amended bid and Cato’s pullback on an earlier $3 million offer.
Question: Why did Ms. Cato begin her January 24 presentation with, “I was asked to be here tonight to express any interest that JBM has in purchasing the former Allen Bennett Hospital site?”
Danner: The short of it was, we received a letter about two to three days prior to that Tuesday night meeting saying that they (JBM LLC) withdrew their $3.05 million offer.
It caught us by such surprise, and she (Cato) reiterated their bid of $2.2 million was what they were going to offer. John (city attorney John Duggan) said, “you better be prepared to answer why you have done that. I suggest you come to the meeting because if there are questions, somebody needs to be here.” He sent a letter to Brian (Martin) as well and said ‘we suggest you be here. There is additional information that may or may not be made in public.”
That’s why she said she was asked to be there.
The longer answer is typically this entire process would have taken place preferably as an economic development matter that would not have been public. Miss Cato and the Escude Group, unknown to us, and I can’t even speculate as to why, chose to make the process public in their regard. Mr. Martin and Mr. Benson obviously chose to not make their part of it public.
Brian’s comments were that they asked council to honor their original bid, as it was, but to consider their amended offer.
Q: I understood Brian’s amended offer was only for the economic enhancement and jobs related.
A: That’s the only indication he made in public. But some people opened their envelopes during the course of the meeting and there was at least three or four of us, including Ed, that didn’t open theirs at council meeting. They didn’t realize that in addition to the information that was contained in there, that he had amended his offer by nearly a million dollars.
We were very surprised when several council members who opened their envelope said, ‘You guys need to open your envelopes.’
Q: The offers appeared to be a competition.
A: Let’s keep in mind, too, the $3.005 million offer by Miss Cato was the number she offered in public. So Mr. Benson’s additional offer that raised the ante by $5,000 was only strategic on his part, assuming that they were going to stay where they (Escude group) were. I have no idea why (JBM) wanted to play this game in public. Because I think there are some assumptions on their part whether or not it is through discovery, or a lawsuit, or whatever, will bear out that during the sequence of events that took place, that in actuality that will disprove the idea that they were always the highest bidder or the first bidder in this process. That’s not true.
The highest offer and best offer we received from the beginning is Mr. Benson’s offer until they made the $3.010 million bid.
Q: Council would entertain an offer at its council meeting and then a subsequent offer made day(s) after council meeting. This is typical business?
A: This is not typical business. Cities don’t often sell a lot of land. We sell parcels and transfer parcels from time to time. We sell land once in a while.
I think part of the problem is state law says you have to do two public readings to sell a piece of municipal owned land. It doesn’t address what the process is. It doesn’t address that if you do first reading and you’re contractually obligated to that person that somebody else can or can’t come along before the next meeting and offer more. Which was done. There was some debate about that and the answer we got after much consultation, debate and research was, there was no case study to tell us how to do this.
The intent of the state government is to say, if you do first reading somebody ought to have the opportunity to come along and offer more. That maximizes the city’s fiduciary responsibility. We were in a really gray area and we acted in what we thought was in the citizen’s best behalf. It was simply that the process we choose. Was it flawed? Maybe. But it was the best we knew to do at that point.
Q: Well, congratulations on the $3 million offer.
A: When we did the RFP process we outlined four or five bullet points we wanted – that was council’s directive. I guess the assumption was when the period closed without any bidding; the market didn’t see a good fit for that outline. The question becomes is do we want to hold this property until it realigns itself with the market or do we simply want to sell this piece of property for what we think is the highest offer for the best use? I think the council said at that time we think it is in our best interest to sell it to the highest bidder and for the best use.