Francis Henry brought news from the historic Colonial Inn to the Town Board this week before sharing his hopes for what could happen there in the future.
The inn, at 153 W. King St., is “at a real dangerous spot right now,” Henry said Monday night. The roof over a back room recently fell in, he said, and the room, which has a brick floor, filled with water.
Hillsborough firefighters responding Tuesday to a call about smoke found Henry in the room with the collapsed roof, burning old, wet papers in a fireplace. Fire Marshal Jerry Wagner said the fire did not affect other parts of the inn and was never out of control.
“The problem was there never should have been a fire in a condemned building like that,” Wagner said, “especially with all the combustibles in there.”
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Henry was joined at Monday’s meeting by Dale Helsabeck, who represents a new investors group. They have been exploring ideas and talking with different people, Henry said, and are forming a new fund-raising campaign – separate from the nonprofit Colonial Inn Preservation Association.
“I hope that the new group will raise awareness and be more open than I am about what’s going on and what we expect with the project,” Henry said.
He shared several ideas with the board, including the possibility of cooking schools and a government or commercial use. Some kind of agreement with UNC also might be another way of looking at the project, Henry said.
Helsabeck mentioned second-floor condos or potentially opening an event and conference center with a small restaurant in one wing.
“It’s a process, and some of the things will change,” Henry said. “Some of the things that we might want now, two months from now, we’re going to come back and say, wait a minute, that doesn’t (work).”
The 176-year-old inn has languished since Henry bought it in 2001. The town, after a decade-long battle with Henry, paid $8,500 this year to have the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative study options for the 11,621-square-foot building.
The board also needs more details, a project timeline and an understanding of how Henry’s plan compares to the DFI report, members said.
The report estimated the cost of buying and restoring the inn at nearly $3 million. Future uses could include office or commercial space, it said, but the town’s strongest demand is for restaurant space.
Helsabeck, a real estate and mortgage financing professional, admitted she was new to redevelopment, telling the board several times that she needs to know what zoning the town wants before she can firm up the details.
Town Board member Kathleen Ferguson addressed the confusion after several frustrating exchanges.
“We’re saying it’s your building, have a vision, bring us the vision and then you apply the zoning to the plan,” Ferguson said. “You do not pick a zoning, and then build a plan around zoning. That’s ass over teakettle.”
The board advised Helsabeck to consult with Planning Director Margaret Hauth and other development professionals before bringing back a plan.
Board member Eric Hallman also recommended that the inn’s owners create a new limited liability company to handle its affairs. Henry’s Colonial Inn LLC currently owns the building and has a long, difficult history with the town.
Hallman said that makes it less likely the town will want a partnership, because trust will be important.
“I think there’s a window to get something done here,” he said, “and if we miss that window, you lose credibility with the town, you lose credibility with investors. They’ll never come back.”
Helsabeck said they were arranging this week to give her power of attorney over the inn’s affairs as a way to alleviate those fears.