NEW CUMBERLAND - Five offers and five rejections.
That's the way Chester Fire Chief John Hissam sees the latest decision by the Hancock County Board of Education regarding the sale of Newell Memorial Field.
The board voted 4-1 on Tuesday to have a second auction for the football stadium, which the district has been trying to dispose of as surplus property since June. Board member John Manypenny voted against the auction but did not return phone calls seeking comment.
BACK?ON?THE?AUCTION?BLOCK — Newell Memorial Field once again will be put on the auction block following a decision this week by the Hancock County Board of Education. A previous auction received only one bid, from the Chester Volunteer Fire Department, which did not meet the requested minimum price.
Hissam has made repeated attempts, including two with the assistance of the City of Chester, to buy the football field and retain it for community use.
The latest attempt, proffered by the city and the fire department on Nov. 5, would have had the fire department writing a check for $250,000 to the city, which, in turn, would have paid the school district. The fire department would then have taken ownership of the stadium.
But the school board passed on that offer on Tuesday, opting, instead, to approve Superintendent Suzan Smith's recommendation that the stadium be once again put up for auction. The auction has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 30 in the school board room in New Cumberland.
"The decision of the board was disheartening," Hissam said. "We've tried every avenue we can think of that's above-board to try to get them to see our point of view, and it hasn't worked."
Hissam said the members of the Chester Volunteer Firemen's Association, the fire department's registered charity, will sit down "within the next few days" to decide on the next course of action.
"For whatever reason, the board doesn't want us to have the field," he said. "We haven't given up yet, but we're still in the position of trying to find out what to do."
School Board President Jerry Durante, citing advice from the Bowles Rice law firm, said the problem has been the questionable legality of the offers.
Durante said West Virginia law does now allow for a political subdivision to act as an agent in such a transaction. What's more, the school board could sell the stadium to the fire department but only for a "nominal consideration," he said.
The latest offer from the fire department was not nominal, he said.
"I think it was a fair offer had it not been for the concern I had about the regulations that restrict the board in its conveyance of public property to a public agency ... then to a 501 (c)(3) organization," Durante said. "My intent is to stay within the letter of the law and the spirit of the law."
Smith would not comment on the latest offer from Chester, saying, "I have consulted with our legal counsel and have been advised that this (auction) is the best and cleanest way to handle this, so ... that is why I recommended it to the board."
As with the first auction, held Oct. 25, the minimum bid for the 4.25-acre piece of property will be $250,000, Smith said. All the auction rules will be the same.
Newell businessman Tommy Ogden, co-owner of Builders Wholesale in Chester, said he will be at the Nov. 30 auction prepared to bid at least the minimum amount.
Ogden outlined his proposal to the board on Tuesday.
"I want to do what's best for the community," he said. "If I would happen to win the auction, I would want to keep the field for the community and try, to the best of my ability, to develop the south end of the field."
Ogden said his proposal is similar to the fire department's, but with "a splash of economic development thrown in. ... There is another opinion out there that is more pro-business."
Ogden said he would consult with Hancock County commissioners on how to develop the south end of the property. He also would like to see the fire department hold its annual Fall Bash on the property.
"In no way am I competing with the fire department. I want to be partners with them. I want to keep the field the field. ... I have nothing but the utmost respect for Chief Hissam and his department," Ogden said.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)