Judge questions why lawsuit over NC Indian Cultural Center lease is in federal court

ablythe@newsobserver.comAugust 23, 2013 

The N.C. Indian Cultural Center once had grand plans for 419 acres near Maxton, a small town on the western edge of Robeson County.

The nonprofit organization wanted to develop a lofty, lakefront retreat with recreational, educational and convention space on state-owned land, with visions of celebrating the heritage of North Carolina’s Indian tribes.

Today, however, a small museum on the property displays only a limited number of artifacts. A swimming pool sits empty, and an amphitheater – once the stage for a popular outdoor drama – is dilapidated and partially burned.

The state, which entered a 99-year, $1-per-year lease with the nonprofit organization nearly two decades ago, wants to wrest away control of the land that abuts the Riverside Golf Course, an expansive property they argue is also in disrepair.

When that quarrel landed in federal court this week, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle questioned why he needed to be involved at all in the dispute. He asked the N.C. Indian Cultural Center, which has been fighting to maintain control of the property for several years, to take a few days and outline why its case should be heard in federal court.

Legislature terminates lease

In late June, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law that terminated the state’s lease with the N.C. Cultural Center, a move that was led by state Rep. Charles Graham, a Lumbee Indian who represents the area.

The action prompted immediate resistance from Harold “Iron Bear” Collins, a world-champion power-lifter, philanthropist and member of the Lumbee-Cheraw tribe in North Carolina. He claims to have invested nearly $2.8 million into the property.

Brother-in-law to a member of the nonprofit’s board, Collins was not part of the lawsuit filed in federal court. He has said, however, that he would mount a legal fight if he is not compensated for labor and money he put into the property.

The law dissolving the lease comes a year after a legislative study found that the property needed $2.1 million in repairs. Attorneys for the state argued in federal court this week that the N.C. Cultural Center was informed in 2011 that the disrepair and vandalized sites put the organization in violation of the lease.

David H. Harris Jr., a Durham-based attorney for the center, argued that state officials did not follow proper procedure in terminating the lease and that the center had not been given an opportunity to fix the problems.

State wants property sold

The new law calls for the 419 acres, including the Riverside Golf Course, to be appraised and offered for sale to the Pembroke-based Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

If the Lumbee Tribe decides not to buy the tract, it would be offered for sale to the general public with no restrictions on its use.

Gary Teague, an attorney for the state, told Boyle this week that an appraiser had estimated the property to be worth about $3,000 per acre if it were not subject to restrictions and covenants applicable if the Lumbees purchased it.

State officials also argued the lawsuit should be in the state courts because it was a contract dispute.

The nonprofit center countered that, because the dispute stemmed from state legislative action, it belonged in federal court because a constitutional violation had occurred.

Boyle set Monday as the deadline for a response from the center as to why he should get involved with the dispute.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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