For the third year in a row the Town of Swansboro is weighing the pros and cons of selling the Cigar Shop.

The property is located at 106 Church St. downtown and has become a hot-button issue. Swansboro bought the property in 2009 for potential redevelopment to contribute to the economy of the downtown business district, The Daily News reported.

In June 2016 the Board of Commissioners voted to postpone the decision of selling the land and asked for studies to be done showing the possible uses for the property if the town were to keep it and redevelop it.

About 10 residents approached the board during budget discussions in April 2017 to again ask the town not to sell, and the board agreed.

Town Manager Scott Chase, as requested, presented several options for the town to consider for the property in 2016, which included a parking lot, open lawn, or relocating the Pug Pavilion. Similar options were given at this year’s budget meetings, and prices for the changes were estimated to be up to $320,000 for an open space lawn, up to $338,668 to relocate the Pug Pavilion, or up to $439,000 for new construction.

This year, discussions have started again, and some residents have expressed their opinions already.

Commissioner Brent Hatlestad took to Facebook and created a public post asking for feedback, and many asked him not to sell the location. Some mentioned the future possibilities for the location, like the aforementioned parking lot.

Hatlestad said he’s thinking of the town’s more immediate needs. Swansboro residents have been asking for sidewalks for years – and it’s not going to be cheap to pull off. Estimates put construction around $500,000.

Meanwhile, the town has a piece of property that, while does generate some revenue, could be sold to put the money elsewhere, Hatlestad explained.

There’s no town affiliation with the Cigar Shop, Hatlestad continued. Town hall is also used by a church on Sundays and the municipal park is rented out for parties and weddings, but the Cigar Shop isn’t the same and he can’t see justifying having 3,000 residents own the property when they could use the sale to fund capital projects.

“Right now, looking at these budgets . . . as I look at that, we don’t even have the set-aside funds right now to buy the fire truck we need, or to pay down or plan for the retirement benefits for our employees,” Hatlestad said.

If the town doesn’t have the money for that, it doesn’t have the money right now to redevelop the Cigar Shop property on Church Street, Hatlestad explained, but selling the property for nearly $300,000 could help with more immediate needs.

Commissioner Angela Clinton is thinking more long-term.

“The sale of the Cigar Shop would be a short-sighted move,” she said. “We’re taking a revenue-generating asset in a prime location that we will surely need one day . . . and giving it away forever, and that’s not something we can get back easily.”

The town might want or need the property five or 10 or 15 years from now, and would likely end up having to pay a lot of money to get it back, she said.

From her understanding, Clinton said the sale would include a clause for the property to remain the Cigar Shop and would allow the town first right of refusal if it went up for sale again.

“That didn’t go far enough for me,” Clinton said.

She’d also want the town to have the option of buying back the property every 5-to-10 years and have a cap on how much the sale price could increase in those intervals, but she’s unsure if there’s even a legal way to make these clauses or if a buyer would agree to these.

In rent alone, the Cigar Shop will generate nearly $17,000 for the town in 2018 based on the monthly fee set in the lease. The lease is currently in effect until 2020, said Cigar Shop owner Georges Asmar. If the town were to sell the property to him for $275,000, Asmar said he’d take it – and be willing to sell it back later for the same price.

“I love this town, and the people of this town. Love this place,” Asmar said.

He would also plan to keep it as the Cigar Shop, he said.

“I would stay here til I die,” he added.

Hatlestad said one of the reasons he wants to look at selling the property is to prevent raising taxes in Swansboro, and Clinton said she sees the point he and others are making when faced with a tax increase.

Recently, Clinton said she presented figures she’d come up with, showing the town might need to go as high as an $0.11 tax increase to fund everything they’re looking at. Clinton said the sale of one property isn’t going to solve all the town’s problems and she would prefer looking at little steps the town can take so they’re not in a scarier situation a decade from now.

“What I’m in favor of first and foremost is going through the budget and seeing where we can save without negatively impacting our existing employees in a negative way, or our existing citizens,” Clinton said.

The point of her presentation, she said, was to encourage scaling back a bit monetarily where they can before looking at tax increases or property sales. As for tax increases in general, she’s still on the fence and said the board will continue to comb through the budget to try and find money to fund sidewalk construction.

“I don’t support the sale,” Clinton said, “but I do support the right that elections matter, and if there is a new majority wanting to do something different, they are welcome to be heard on that issue.”

Community members will get that chance soon. A public hearing on the potential sale of the Cigar Shop is planned for 6 p.m. May 14 at Swansboro Town Hall, located at 601 W. Corbett Ave.

 

Reporter Amanda Thames can be reached at 910-219-8467 or Amanda.Thames@JDNews.com