The Town Board should act soon to save the historic Colonial Inn on West King Street, former Hillsborough Mayor Horace Johnson told its members Monday.
The Colonial Inn was a backdrop, in its time, to working dinners that shaped Hillsborough and a place to serve visitors from around the world a “sumptuous meal,” Johnson said. It could be that again, if it’s restored, he said.
“We cannot sit idly by, folks, and let this thing just fall to the ground,” he said. “We’ve got to do something.”
Johnson said the board has two options: Hold a bond referendum and let voters decide whether the town should buy and restore the inn, he said, or use certificates of participation, a type of financing that voters do not have to approve.
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Certificates of participation were used in Durham to get the ball rolling on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and American Tobacco campus, he said.
Hillsborough resident Tammy Jordan recalled that her grandmother, who was born in the 19th century, enjoyed going to the inn all her life.
Ida Louise Evans Lawson shared memories of working there as a waitress more than 50 years ago.
“I really would like to see the Colonial Inn come alive again, because I am a part of it,” she said.
Businessman Francis Henry bought the 175-year-old inn for $410,000 in 2001. Since then, the inn has been neglected while Henry fought the town over required repairs and the building’s potential uses.
Henry has filed two demolition applications in the past few years, which have been denied. The last attempt inspired dozens of residents to hold a protest “party” on the Town Barn lawn. Private investors have said Henry is turning down their offers to buy the building.
Henry attended Monday’s meeting but did not speak publicly. He said previously no one has made serious offers and that his goal in applying for demolition permits has been to exercise his rights as a property owner. It does not necessarily mean he will tear down the inn, Henry said.
Johnson said the town could seize the inn through eminent domain or work with a private investor. The town could pay some costs using revenues from its 1 percent food and beverage tax and by offering rooms to visitors at $200 a night, along with a bar downstairs that serves food.
Town officials have considered their options but said the cost of buying and restoring the inn could be a few million dollars.
The Tourism Board decides how to use the tax revenues, Town Manager Eric Peterson said, not the Town Board. Sixty percent of the revenues – $230,000 last year – support the Visitors Center. The rest is for tourism programs, facilities and services.
That doesn’t leave much for the Colonial Inn, he said.
If the Town Board fails to act, Johnson warned the next step might be filing recall petitions or supporting opposition candidates in the next election. The building is deteriorating, and if nothing is done, it may not be saved, he said.
The board plans to talk about the Colonial Inn at a future meeting, Mayor Tom Stevens said.
“I do believe I speak for this board when I say we’re all interested in saving the Colonial Inn, so please stay tuned,” he said.