“Bull****!” says Commissioner Mike Fryar
By Roger McCredie- Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost said in a televised interview last week that the old Beacon Manufacturing site in Swannanoa remains unsold because the controversial HB2 “bathroom ordinance” is keeping outside developers away.
“Our econ development team is working like crazy to market [the property],” Frost told WLOS-TV reporter Frank Fraboni on-camera. “It would be great for the community to have jobs there and some growth. But now, our biggest block is, when our econ development team talk to site developers for companies, guess what they say? ‘HB2, we’re not coming,’ ” Frost, a Democrat, said.
Frost’s statements drew an immediate, angry and colorful response from Republican fellow commissioner Mike Fryar,
“Bull****!” said Fryar. We have been trying to do something with that property for years. Nobody has said they wouldn’t come on account of that [HB2]. That’s all just lies.”
Frost and Fryar both represent Buncombe County District 2, which includes Swannanoa, the location of the Beacon site.
Mike Fryar- photo from AB Tech
The Tribune asked Frost directly if she could name a particular business that had been approached about, or expressed an interest in, the Beacon property, but Frost declined to be specific.
“Since the passage of HB 2 site developers are not interested in coming to NC,” she said. She added that a guarantee of anonymity is essential in negotiations with a prospective developer, implying that she was not at liberty to confirm or deny that HB2 has been responsible for keeping prospective developers – of the Swannanoa site or any other – away from Buncombe County.
“As you know companies remain anonymous while in this stage of exploration,” she said.
Frost did not explain how such anonymity could still be binding or would otherwise prohibit the naming of a company if, as she suggested, that company had already abandoned interest in the property. Nor did she explain how in some cases, as recently with Deschutes Brewing Company — which chose Roanoke, Va. over Buncombe County as a manufacturing site — the prospect’s identity is known from the very beginning.
But by way of illustration, Frost mentioned General Electric’s addition of a then-secret new product manufacturing capability at its Arden plant in 2013. “If GE had been revealed prior to their announcement, they would have chosen elsewhere and they would have closed the then existing facility,” she said.
The GE deal was known initially only as “Project X” because GE did indeed tell county government officials and the media that if details of the deal were breached, GE would not only take its addition somewhere else but would also close the Arden facility altogether. The gag order rankled many county residents, who complained of unnecessary secrecy, lack of transparency in county government and bullying tactics on the part of GE, whose identity and involvement was initially not known.
On June 8, 2013, the Tribune, which had been investigating the gag order for several weeks, broke the news in a story titled “Sources in position to know say G-E’s Unison Corp. is “Project X” several days before GE made its own announcement at a trade show in Paris. GE neither closed its existing plant nor took its new facility elsewhere.
Frost mentioned no further details regarding interest in the Swannanoa property but said instead, “Our EDC is always pursuing more jobs coming to Buncombe County.
It is their purpose and goal.
“You could reach out to [prominent local businessman] Gordon Myers, the owner of the Beacon site,” Frost recommended. She did not say how, if a company or companies had been looking at the property under benefit of secrecy, such secrecy would not also apply to Myers. The Tribune was unable to reach Myers himself by press time. He was quoted recently as saying he had listed the property for sale about 60 days ago, which would have been March.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed the resolution now universally known as HB2 on March 23. The bill contains several provisions but the one that has generated unbridled anger in some quarters is the stipulation that transgendered persons must use public restroom facilities according to the sex indicated on their birth certificates. To some, that provision speaks to protection and safety; to others it is blatantly discriminatory and unjust.
Anti-HB2 performers and organizations have mounted an informal but highly publicized boycott of North Carolina, but no sources contacted by the Tribune have as yet confirmed Frost’s allegation that HB2 is responsible for an avoidance by outside developers of the Swannanoa site or anyplace else in Buncombe County.
Fryar repeated, “There has not been any company we have approached, or that approached us, that ended up saying they were not interested on account of HB2. That’s political garbage.”
Former county commissioner Miranda Debruhl, interviewed prior to her announcement that she would be resigning her seat for nonpolitical reasons, said, “I could say a lot of things about this, but let’s just leave it that I personally know of no developer who has said ‘We won’t do business in Buncombe County because of HB2’ – not about that particular land or anywhere else.”
Neither County Manager Wanda Greene nor Economic Development Coalition Executive Director Ben Teague responded to a request from the Tribune to say whether any outside firm has declined to do business in the county on account of HB2.
The Swannanoa property comprises some 35 acres and was originally the site of Beacon Manufacturing Company’s blanket-making facility. Beacon originally built the factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1904 and reconstructed it brick by brick at the Swannanoa location in 1924. The company was the Swannanoa area’s major employer for many years until it fell victim to the overall decline in American textile operations that began in the late 1980’s. The plant closed its doors in 2002. A massive fire destroyed the building on September 3, 2003, and the property has remained vacant ever since. A bid to install affordable housing on the site in 2013 never materialized.
“I don’t know why [the Beacon property] hasn’t been bought by the county,” Fryar said. “It’s ideal for manufacturing. It’s in a central location and a rail line runs right to it. That’s a great incentive.”
Frost’s interview with Fraboni was a part of WLOS’s ongoing “Ask 13” series, in which the station addresses questions posed by viewers. The station said the story was prompted by a former Beacon employee who lives in Swannanoa and was curious about the status of the property.