MOUNT VERNON — The Knox County Land Bank declared through its legal counsel, Jeffry Harris, it would not be releasing any information regarding how many businesses turned in applications to purchase the New Hope Industries property at 1375 Newark Road.
The land bank set a Friday deadline of 5 p.m. — proposals including amounts offered for the property — for businesses that want to purchase the site and give it its “highest and best use,” the term the land bank and its board uses to determine who will be awarded with a contract.
New Hope Industries land bank sale vote July 18 2019
New Hope Industries asks for more time July 12, 2019
New Hope given 5 months to vacate July 10, 2019
The 35,000 square feet, 6-acre county-owned property is currently occupied by New Hope Industries (NHI), which provides services such as manufacturing floor work opportunities to about 50 adults with developmental disabilities. NHI, which has been privately owned since 2007, was informed last month by the Knox County Commissioners that it has been given until April 15 of next year to relocate. NHI has operated as a privately owned, nonprofit business through a sub-lease with the county Developmental Disabilities board. The board, in turn, has leased the property from Knox County commissioners.
Initially, the county had only given NHI five months to move following a late June meeting.
In a letter to the News Friday, Harris stressed confidentiality in the process of land bank’s forthcoming sale of the county-owned property.
“As one may imagine, in the sale of a taxpayer-owned property, vetting applications and purchase offers, and selecting the best bargain must be handled delicately and with some degree of confidentiality,” Harris wrote. “Otherwise, prospective buyers may be prevented from submitted offers for fear of having the transaction handled out in the open. Thus my office will not authorize the Knox County Land Bank to release any information regarding applications to purchase 1375 Newark Road that may be received by 5 p.m. (Friday).”
Citing state law under the Ohio Revised Code when reached by phone Friday, Harris said the land bank does not have to disclose any details about businesses that submitted bids because it involves the purchase of county government surplus property. And, he added, this is how the land bank will operate on such property moving forward.
The number of firms that submitted bids proposals, how much those purchase amount proposals were for, how each business offered to fix up the property to help the local economy through job creation — and even the land bank’s own appraised value for the property — will not be disclosed, Harris said.
During a News interview with the Knox County Prosecutor this week, Chip McConville said Ohio Revised Code section 1724.11, “Confidentiality of information,” makes it clear that financial or proprietary information “including trade secrets, submitted by or on behalf of an entity to the community improvement corporation in connection with the relocation, location, expansion, improvement, or preservation of the business of that entity … is confidential information and is not a public record subject to section 149.43 of the Revised Code.” Community improvement corporation refers to the land bank.
McConville offered, however, that also as stated in the code, once the land bank board has entered into a written contract, or in this case, a written purchase agreement with the company selected to purchase and improve the property, only then do parts of that contract and the name of the winning firm become public record.
The land bank is scheduled to meet in closed executive session on Aug. 28 to select the winning application. Land Bank President Jeff Gottke — who works with Harris at the Area Development Foundation, which manages the land bank’s daily operations for the land bank board — said this week he expected fewer than five firms to make proposals.
Harris’ letter emphasized that when information is finally released, ostensibly on Aug. 28 when the purchase agreement is signed, it will not include the purchase amount or any details about how the winning firm plans to improve the property to its “highest and best use.”
Harris said after the “acrimony, emotions and visceral reactions” that he and other officials were subject to last month concerning NHI being asked to vacate the property so it can be sold, “I decided to go deeper into the public records law” about what must be released to the public.
The land bank will also not release any information about the other firms that submitted proposals, he said. While the land bank is what Harris has called a “quasi-governmental” entity subject to some public records laws, it will not be releasing its owned appraised value of the property.
That is also confidential because it involves the sale of government surplus property, he said. When asked how that may be viewed by taxpayers who pay for government-owned property, he said it is part of Ohio law — and therefore a matter to be taken up with their state legislator(s) if the public does not like the way the law is written.
Asked if there is too much secrecy involved in land bank acquisition matters, which may give public officials and other high-level parties an advantage over others interested in acquisition, Harris said he resented the question because it pertains to ethics. He offered that the land bank maintains the highest ethical standards and he would not take such phone calls or meetings giving those of influence an advantage concerning their potential interest in a property.
Knox County Commissioner Thom Collier recently said although the county Auditor’s Office sets the value of the land and property at about $567,000, such a prime county-owned location — within Mount Vernon Industrial Park — is likely worth between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Gottke said this week that eventually — when the purchaser and land bank close on the property sale, which is not expected until December — the price paid for 1375 Newark Road would be made known at that time. The purchase value would be revealed because the land bank, which does release its bank statements as public record, would record a deposit equal to 10 percent of the sale price — its profit in the transaction.
The land bank’s new policy of not releasing information about proposals submitted for government-owned property differs from how the land bank handled the sale of the former Elmwood Fire Station on Ames Street earlier this year. Those proposals involved plans to improve the property for conversion to single family use, with amounts offered for the property made known.
The fire station property sold for $35,000, with the land bank receiving $5,000 for their work on the transaction. Gottke previously said the sale of 1375 Newark Road would follow “the same procedure” as the fire station.
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