Some Harlem city officials are considering purchasing a piece of property from the mayor to relocate a set of fire trucks away from the railroad tracks and create a headquarters for the city's Public Safety department.
In an effort to remove the trucks from what is considered a vulnerable position next to the tracks, officials have considered purchasing the property at the corner of Milledgeville Road and North Louisville Street from Mayor Bobby Culpepper.
"We looked at it the first time when (John) Bentley was mayor," said county commissioner and former Mayor Scott Dean, who took over as mayor following Bentley's two-year term in 2003. "I think that would be good for the city to get that fire station off the railroad tracks. Both fire stations are within a train wreck from the railroad tracks."
Since that time, city officials have talked to Culpepper about buying the more than one-acre lot where Harlem Farm Supply currently operates.
Relocating the fire trucks and the Harlem Department of Public Safety are part of the city's comprehensive plan.
City money was redirected in Dean's administration toward sewer system repairs and upgrades, much of it mandated by the state Environmental Protection Division.
Culpepper, whose family has owned the property for more than 40 years, is asking $300,000 for the land and the building, which is valued on Columbia County tax records at about $181,000.
The property is worth more than that, Culpepper said, but has not changed hands or been appraised since the 1960s. His father started renting the property and operating the Culpepper Ford dealership there in 1949. He bought the property several years later.
Culpepper said that 12 or 13 years ago he moved the dealership to Nature's Way in Appling, then to Thomson six years ago. At the time he left the property, he was offered $289,000 for it from a drug store chain in a deal that fell through when the chain was bought out by another pharmacy retailer. More recently, a potential buyer offered Culpepper $400,000 for the property at the four-way stop in the center of town, he said.
Culpepper said he's not trying to make a huge profit on the sale.
"I felt like that building has a lot of historical significance and for what they (other previous and current city leaders) always wanted to use it for, I thought it was best suited for that," Culpepper said.
The building already has bays suitable for trucks and would only need some minor and cosmetic renovation to make it usable as a fire station.
"It is not like having to build something from the start," Culpepper said.
Randy Frost, the owner of the farm-equipment business, said he's operated on the property for more than 10 years. He's always rented the building from Culpepper on a month-to-month basis.
"He (Culpepper) told me it was going to happen," Frost said about the sale. "I'm not a happy camper, that's for sure."
The sale is being negotiated and nothing has been finalized. But Frost knows that if the sale does go through, he'll have to move his business.
"I understand the city needs to grow and stuff like that," Frost said, adding that he's worried about the notice he'll be given before the move.
Culpepper said Frost would be given a minimum of nine months' lead time, and that he and other city officials have tried to help Frost by putting him in contact with the owner of another property where Frost could move his business.
"Suffice it to say, that from the city's standpoint, we don't want to lose the business in the city," Culpepper said. "We'll try to do anything we (can) to keep the business."
City Manager Jean Dove said moving the fire truck is only the first step to relocating the entire public safety department to the building. The complete move is anticipated to happen within the next few years.
Dove said when officials discuss the property and potential sale, Culpepper doesn't just abstain from the discussion -- he leaves the room.
Culpepper said talks of the sale started long before he was mayor and should continue without him to avoid any conflict of interest.
"If you're in the room, you're still influencing," Culpepper said. "They (city council members) can't say exactly what they are thinking. I never wanted that."
Dove said about $1 million of 1-cent sales tax funds in the 2011-2016 SPLOST has been approved for the property, but has not been designated to pay for land purchase, renovation or any other specific project.
Culpepper said the only down side of selling the property to the city is the parcel would come off the tax records and generate no tax revenue as a city-owned property.
"But the way you look at this, with the theater that we're doing and that (public safety project) and some other projects that we have planned to do, you are going to add and stabilize that area," Culpepper said. "So I think you're going to add to the value of some other businesses, commercial (properties). We have some long-term plans to create some other commercial areas."
Dove said the city recently purchased the lot on the opposite corner of North Louisville Street, next to the former Columbia Theatre building. The property, which houses a trailer sales business, cost $50,000 and will be used for public parking and for a small theater expansion.
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