Our View: Public deserves to know details on Lee development




For some time now, the sale of the Lee Middle School property has been shrouded in secrecy. The Columbus Municipal School District, which technically owns the property, has been looking for a buyer since the school closed in 2011. Two years ago, the CMSD Board of Trustees entered into an agreement with the Columbus Redevelopment Authority to market the 14-acre parcel at the corner of 18th Avenue and Military Road on the behalf of the school district. The CMSD's stated goals were to find a buyer that could transform the idle property into a viable business, boosting the tax revenue while playing a key role in the revitalization of the area. 


But after announcing a potential buyer in November, the CRA has kept the negotiations hush-hush, even having the buyer's representative get a court order to protect the identity of the buyer. 


At the time, the CRA stressed that releasing that information could jeopardize the deal. While this paper previously led a charge to reveal the identity of the buyer, we understand the need for secrecy while a buyer is doing their due diligence.  


In a press release Saturday, the buyer was identified only as Military Lee LLC, which was registered by the Mississippi Secretary of State's office in May. Later that day, CRA President John Acker, who has said previously the potential buyer was someone with roots in the community and a history of development, said businessman Scott Berry was involved along with other unnamed developers. Alarmingly, Acker said he didn't know all the individuals involved and couldn't cite any other developments the people involved had worked on. 


Perhaps this was Acker's way of saying he wasn't going to reveal any additional details about the deal. Taken at face value though, we are concerned the buyers haven't been properly vetted. The success or failure of a project like this hinges on the individuals involved, not on the name of a recently-formed LLC. 


The Lee property is not just some random 15 acres. It is located in a prime area of the city, part of a growing retail corridor along Highway 45 and 18th Avenue. A successful development would capture and extend the momentum of growth we are seeing in that area, complementing the Brickerton development to the east. At its best, this property could set the tone for continued growth. At its worst, it could be a missed opportunity and a rare one at that. 


Additionally, this is not a transaction between private parties. Taxpayers own Lee Middle School and are entitled to details on the sale now that an agreement has been reached. Further, in a questionable move by the state Department of Archives and History, the building was given landmark status, paving the way for the developers to use public money -- in the form of tax credits -- to offset their development costs. Brownfield incentives and the use of tax increment financing (TIF) are also possible. Citizens have a vested interest in this project. 


We've heard murmurings of developers with a proven track-record being involved. We want this project to be successful and hope this is the case. We don't know, though, and neither does the public. 


We deserve to.



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