“Why is it taking so long?”

Residents confront SAGA over hotel rehab

By Tyler Newman Staff Writer

EDENTON — Tensions flared as residents from both Edenton and Elizabeth City confronted an official with Outer Banks-based SAGA Construction and Development over stalled commercial projects in the two communities during a public forum on Saturday.

At King Street Marketplace in Edenton, just steps away from the long vacant Hotel Hinton, residents and community leaders questioned SAGA Director of Business Development Bob Howsare on what they described as a lack of progress on the project.

The event, coordinated by Edenton residents with the help of Marketplace owners Lorrie and Patrick Dablow, drew a crowd of nearly 100.

The Hotel Hinton project has been in limbo for nearly a decade. Chowan County sold the building to Preservation North Carolina, who then sold it to SAGA Construction and Development. SAGA recently entered into an agreement with Edenton Construction to perform some maintenance work at the site.

Howsare told attendees that SAGA is seeking federal tax credits to help finance the hotel renovation project. SAGA has submitted a “Part 2” application to the National Parks Service, a requirement for the type of tax credits the company needs for the Hinton project.

“New Market Tax Credits are allocated by the feds and are much harder (to get) than historic tax credits,” Howsare told attendees. “They don’t prioritize rural areas.”

Some of those attending the meeting expressed frustration over the length of time it’s taking SAGA to develop the Hotel Hinton property.

“Why is it that it takes eight years to get a plan together?” asked Dawson Tyler, co-owner of Down East Preservation.

Howsare said SAGA has tried to pursue the Hilton project in the interim, including courting two major banks — U.S. Bank and Live Oak Bank — who he said have decided to stop working on hotel projects. SAGA also has previously tried to obtain tax credits for the project from the National Park Service but thus far has been unsuccessful, he said.

“It’s a blight in the heart of historic Edenton,” Tyler told Howsare. “We got the Thrasher Group in Tupelo, Mississippi, willing to (develop) it, we were getting ready to make an offer and (SAGA CEO) Sumit Gupta got word of it and nothing happened. It’s just been talking and talking. Why don’t you sell it to someone who knows what to do with it?”

A few attendees asked Howsare how much SAGA wants for the building. He repeatedly said that “it’s not for sale.” He also said he could not give them an estimated timeline for the renovation project.

Edenton Town Councilman Hackney High told Howsare that he has seen towns with “less going for them than Edenton and Elizabeth City” where historic hotels are being rehabilitated without much of a problem.

SAGA also owns a 78-acre lot between Virginia and Paradise roads in Edenton it purchased in 2012 and the long-vacant Southern Hotel on the corner of Road and Main streets in Elizabeth City. SAGA’s renovation project in Elizabeth City also has stalled.

“We just don’t understand — and if your company can do a better job of making us understand — because when we don’t understand (why it’s taking so long), that’s when the doubt (that the project will be completed) creeps in,” High said. “That’s when the skepticism creeps in, and you’re preaching to a skeptical crowd here.”

Also attending Saturday’s meeting were Edenton Mayor Jimmy Stallings, councilors Aaron Coston, Roger Coleman and Craig Miller, and Town Manager Corey Gooden.

One resident asked if Howsare had been inside the hotel. He said he had. When asked what was happening inside, Howsare said “nothing.”

The same day of the meeting, The Outer Banks Voice reported that Howsare acknowledged the presence of what he described as “crackheads” inside the vacant Hinton building.

“The whole vandalism thing — they’re acting like it’s our fault,” Howsare told the Outer Banks newspaper. “They have some crackheads there, (and) that’s what they’re doing. I find the stuff in the building.”

Edenton resident Kip Shaw also vented his frustration at Howsare.

“The problem is you’ve had the building (for) eight years and haven’t done a damn thing,” he said.

Howsare told attendees that Gupta, SAGA’s CEO, wants to make the project happen and seeks “community support” for it.

In response to a reporters’ inquiry about why he didn’t attend Saturday’s meeting, Gupta said he had “some prior obligations.”

“I was not even aware of this meeting until a few days prior,” he said.

Debbie Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown Inc., attended Saturday’s meeting. She said the vacant Southern Hotel in Elizabeth City is essentially becoming a “demolition by neglect” case.

“We are going through a fantastic renaissance in (downtown) Elizabeth City,” Malenfant said. “I know SAGA makes their bread and butter at the beach, but they can experience the upside of doing things here in Edenton and Elizabeth City.”

Malenfant added that SAGA had given city officials great plans and promises, but “not a lot of follow-through.”

“You need to restore, renovate or divest,” Malenfant told Howsare. “There have been numerous people we have tried to hand over to you for an interest to purchase (the hotel) but the answer is always ‘we’re not interested,’ and our patience is running incredibly thin.”

Also attending Saturday’s meeting was Denise Barnes, a board member of Preservation North Carolina and owner of The Venue in downtown Edenton.

According to the deed for the Hotel Hinton, Preservation NC could be given a buyback option if SAGA violates any structural or architectural conditions the property. However, SAGA must be given a 90-day “warning period” to fix the violations before buyback becomes available.

“(The hotel) wouldn’t necessarily revert back to us immediately,” Barnes said. “We want to encourage positive growth.”

Barnes also said that SAGA is not permitted to demolish the hotel, which many Edenton residents have expressed concern about.

Preservation NC President Myrick Howard told The Outer Banks Voice that he thought Saturday’s meeting in Edenton would be nothing more than a “gripe session” and that he hopes “this bump in the road will pass.”

SAGA recently told Edenton leaders the company is looking at a four- to five- month timetable for strategizing its next moves for the Hotel Hinton project.

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