MOUNT VERNON — A Mount Vernon City Council member who is a former director of New Hope Industries (NHI) Inc. — joined by others opposed to possible relocation of NHI sought by Knox County Commisisoners — grilled commissioners Tuesday.
City Councilmember Mike Hillier, NHI’s former director, said giving the private entity just five months to move from their 35,000 square-foot building at 1375 Newark Road is taking it “out from under them with no regards to the individuals who work there.”
Commissioner Teresa Bemiller responded that she disagrees with that assessment and offered that commissioners have made no final decision on the county-owned property within the Mount Vernon Industrial Park.
NHI serves developmentally disabled clients with numerous services that include a manufacturing room floor where 50 clients work on assembly and packaging duties for about a dozen industrial park companies.
The Knox County Land Reutilization Corp., also known as the land bank, which Bemiller chairs, will be the agent under contract that would sell the property for the county. A June 27 meeting convened by Commissioner Thom Collier, and attended by Knox County Board of Developmental Disablities Superintendent Steve Oster, NHI CEO Dennis Eggerton, and NHI Assistant CEO Angie Wise, resulted in Collier informing the parties that NHI needs to move by Dec. 1 — as there are numerous industrial park tenants who have nowhere to expand and are highly interested in the industrial property.
Collier did not attend Tuesday’s commissioners meeting due to an illness in the family, and Bemiller emphasized to Hillier and other audience members that no final decisions have been made on the property — including the five-month time frame for required relocation. Hillier was joined in the discussion by Wise and Genelle Eggerton, Dennis Eggerton’s wife, who said she was present to represent herself and not her husband.
Bemiller did offer that when NHI was privatized 12 years ago in 2007, it began a $1 per year sublease from the Developmental Disabilities (DD) board, and said NHI has been able to use that to its advantage by expanding into several other adjoining counties. The DD board, in turn, cannot own property under state law and so leases the building directly from commissioners. At the time, Bemiller served on the DD board.
There are some clients at NHI who “can’t handle the slightest change,” Hillier said. The required relocation in such a short period of time would be exceedingly difficult for those clients, he emphasized. Wise added that making NHI move into a potentially smaller space could mean some NHI services would need to be cut. Bemiller asked what those services are, but Wise said that would be decided at a future date. In addition to day habitation and vocational services for clients involving manufacturing work, NHI also provides transportation services, homemaker personal care and employment services.
Any relocation move NHI would be required to make would involve renovation costs, and that likely involves architectural services, Wise said. NHI would have to make a new location ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, and offer enough restrooms to meet client needs. There is also a need for loading dock space.
Bemiller noted that the DD board did not renew its lease with commissioners in April of 2018 because the cost of maintaining and renovating the building has been substantial. In addition, the $1 per year lease amount in a county-owned building has given NHI, a private entity, an advantage over other private entities in Knox County who provide similar services, she said.
Reached for comment Tuesday, Oster said the pressure to have NHI move has created a “sticky situation,” one that would certainly be disruptive to NHI staff and clients, at least for some time. The DD board would be committed to helping NHI during its transition period, he emphasized. But Oster added that the board has helped fund building repairs for NHI as a private entity over the past 12 years, repairs that included roof work and the heating/cooling system. NHI officials said they had put more than $200,000 in building improvements into the structure, including HVAC, a remodeled front area and restrooms, and exterior painting. Providing NHI with such renovation help, and allowing them to lease at next to no cost, is problematic for the DD board, he said.
Hillier took issue with plans that he said seem intent on forcing NHI to move without first selling the building. He and others at the meeting, including Wise, also took issue with commissioners, who frequently visit county agencies, making a decision without first visiting NHI during production time — when clients are doing their work on the manufacturing floor. Bemiller said she has visited NHI before but it has been some time.
Wise said NHI should have been given the opportunity in past years to provide a fair lease amount for the property, but Bemiller said that would have needed to occur with the DD board’s approval, since NHI subleases from the board and not commissioners. Wise and Dennis Eggerton also said that NHI should be given serious consideration to be the potential purchaser of the property. Bemiller said if the land bank becomes the agent to sell the property, nothing would prevent NHI from offering a bid proposal along with other potential buyers.
Wise informed commissioners that on Friday, Jeff Gottke — land bank president, and vice president of Area Development Foundation — toured NHI. She added that she and Gottke will be visiting the Siemens property today to see if any of its buildings might be potentially suitable for NHI relocation. Gottke said ADF is committed toward helping NHI find a new building, if that is commissioners’ final decision. NHI has also been looking at other potential property as well. The Land Bank would be “absolutely” receptive to NHI offering a bid proposal if the property is acquired and put up for sale.
Whatever happens, Gottke offered, “We want to see (NHI) land as softly as it can.”
While Bemiller said she has received information that NHI could find a location about half its current size, Wise said it could not do so and still provide all its current client services. Hillier said after the meeting NHI doesn’t under-utilize its space, but is found wanting in the county’s view because it doesn’t generate tax revenue.
“If you want to see New Hope carry on, you need to give them an appropriate timeline,” Genelle Eggerton told commissioners.
After the meeting, county commissioner Bill Pursel said the county has to be fair to all private entities working with clients who have disabilities. Allowing continuation of a $1 per year lease favors the NHI board, he added, offering, “It’s subsidizing a private entity. We shouldn’t be in that business.”