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Mayor violated historic district policies, former commission members say

Bruce Arnold and George Turner support allegations by former Fayetteville City Council member Tisha Waddell that Mitch Colvin skirted rules on downtown building renovation

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Two former members of the Fayetteville Historic Resources Commission say Mayor Mitch Colvin circumvented the commission's policies when he and a group of unidentified investors renovated the exterior of the historic Kress Building downtown.

The former commission members – Bruce Arnold and George Turner – back an allegation that former City Councilwoman Tisha Waddell made in a five-page letter when she resigned from the council in November. CityView TODAY has been investigating those allegations almost from the time they were made. This is likely its final report on the matter.

Among the allegations in her letter, Waddell said building permits and certificates of appropriateness were “being handled in a manner inconsistent with the policy by city staff regarding” the renovation of the Kress Building at 229 Hay St.

Waddell and Arnold allege that renovation work on the building was done before the commission approved a certificate of appropriateness. Owners of historic buildings in Fayetteville are required to have certificates of appropriateness approved by the commission before they can change the exterior of a building. 

Arnold and Waddell say the commission revised Colvin’s certificate after the exterior of the Kress Building was changed. In some instances, Arnold said, the exterior was altered without approval.

“Mitch Colvin has not come for a COA for any portion of that building — except for the railings on the rooftop — before he's done the work. And a significant amount of work has been done without a COA period,” Arnold said.

He said city staff members often looked the other way.

“I think everybody is afraid they will lose their job because of Mitch,” Arnold said of city employees. “Every time you say something, the comment is, ‘You know, well, I need to have a job tomorrow. You know, I can't do anything about that.’”

The back-and-forth between Arnold and Colvin over the Kress Building became so heated that Arnold said the mayor threatened to sue him.

Colvin acknowledges that he did threaten legal action.

“(Arnold) was acting in his personal capacity when speaking to my workers and contractors, so I mentioned he could be liable personally for these actions,” the mayor said.

Colvin has repeatedly called Waddell’s allegations “baseless.”

He said his Kress Open Spaces partnership — the limited liability corporation that bought the building in 2019 — has and will continue to comply fully with all local and state building requirements.

“We are proud to have successfully converted an empty, unoccupied space into a thriving business complex which is home to a local bank, the city’s only rooftop restaurant and a premier hot yoga studio,” the mayor said in an email. “The entire project was funded through private investment and bank loans and without any taxpayer dollars.’’ 

The city’s Economic and Community Development department has not assisted with the renovation project, city spokeswoman Jodi Phelps said. Under the department’s policies, Phelps said, council members cannot participate in its programs until a year after they leave office. 

Historic Resources Commission meeting 

Colvin and his still unidentified business partners paid $1.3 million for the Kress Building. Lumbee Guaranty Bank now occupies the ground floor of the building, at the corner of Hay and Maxwell streets.

While renovations to the exterior were underway, Arnold watched from Rude Awakening, a coffee shop that he and his wife, Molly, own. The shop abuts the Kress Building, the longtime home of the S.H. Kress Co. five-and-dime store. 

Arnold was a Historic Resources Commission member at that time, a position he said he had held off and on for about 20 years. He previously served as the board’s chairman.

During a commission meeting in December 2019, Arnold told the board that he could see at least 10 renovations to the exterior of the building that had not been approved by the commission, according to The Fayetteville Observer. Among those renovations, he said, was the painting of the brick facade on the first story, which would be against city guidelines because it had never been painted before.

Pictures of the Kress Building from shortly before the renovations began appear to show that the lower brick front had not been painted, although in one photo, aluminum panels applied decades earlier on part of the facade cover the brick. The brick on the upper story and the side wall had been painted white at some point.

Taurus Freeman, then the city’s planning and zoning division manager, said during a commission meeting that painting the front of the building would be allowed because documents showed that the building had been painted before. Changing the certificate of appropriateness to include the newly painted facade would be considered a minor revision, Freeman told the commission. City staff members allowed the changes.

Jonathan Charleston, the city’s bond attorney who represented Colvin as his personal lawyer during the commission meeting, said in a statement then that only one of the 10 alleged violations of the certificate of appropriateness had merit, according to The Fayetteville Observer.

Colvin has repeatedly withheld the names of the other investors, but he said Charleston is not among them.

“Since this is a private transaction and doesn’t involve the use of any public funds, this makeup of the partnership is not important and irrelevant,” Colvin said in an email.

Aluminum storm doors

A month after the December 2019 Historic Resources Commission meeting, the board met again to retroactively approve a modified certificate of appropriateness to allow the installation of aluminum storm doors on the front of the Kress Building. The original certificate had called for wood doors. The aluminum doors were added without prior approval.

Commission members were frustrated but approved the changes, according to the Observer. Turner, a board member at the time, said his approval came reluctantly. He worried that owners of other historic buildings could allege bias if they were denied the same consideration. Arnold was the only board member to vote against approval of the aluminum doors.

“One of the problems with the Historic Resources Commission to begin with is that it has no teeth,” Turner said. “If you violate the historic guidelines, nothing happens. There's nobody to really enforce it and make an issue of it. There's just nothing there, even if you're not the mayor. If you are the mayor, you really can get away with it.”

But John Malzone, who helped establish the commission and has spent decades marketing downtown buildings, said the commission has routinely revised certificates of appropriateness after work has been done and assessed fines for the violations.

“It was not created for Mitch,” Malzone said. “There have been dozens of instances that I know of when I was on the board, because, you know, you want everybody to follow the rules. And there has to be a downside to not following the rules. But at the same time, the whole purpose of the HRC was to rehabilitate empty buildings.” 

Arnold said Colvin benefited from favoritism from the time he submitted his application for a certificate of appropriateness.

In the 20 years he had been on the board, Arnold said, the standard was always that a certificate application had to be filed by the first Friday of the month of the meeting before the commission could act on it.

“That's what's published on the website and everything,” Arnold said. “When (Colvin) was getting ready to come for the first COA … suddenly they canceled the meeting that month. Then, just before the meeting, they came back and said they're going to have it anyway.

“Well, then he's got the COA in there and I'm like, ‘This is only, you know, 10 days before the meeting. How did this get on the agenda?’’’ Arnold said. “And the city attorney (Karen McDonald) says, ‘Well in your bylaws, we found that it says 10 days before the meeting date we can accept the COA.’ In 20 years, I've never found that until that day or that situation.” 

Charleston’s involvement 

Turner said he has gone on the website of the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office trying to identify the partners in the Kress Building project. He has had no luck, partly because the filings for incorporation give the managing partner the option of whether to list the other investors. That section was left blank on the Kress paperwork.

The filings do list Charleston as the registered agent. Charleston said that is typical anytime a lawyer is acting on behalf of someone who wants to incorporate a business venture. Charleston is listed as the registered agent for dozens of limited-liability corporations on the Secretary of State’s website.

But the fact that Charleston represents so many people in Fayetteville — including the mayor and at least three Citiy Council members — concerns Turner, who was among a group of neighbors who tried to keep Dismas Charities from opening a halfway house on Cain Road. The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that Dismas can move forward with its plans. 

“When you look for anything that involves the mayor, the name that pops up is Jonathan Charleston,” Turner said. “I mean, he's right there. It's probably one of the biggest questions I've ever had.

“I'm in the real estate business, and there are certain times when you can't represent everybody, but Charleston represents everybody. I mean, he's never not there. And he's always representing somebody like he did with Dismas Charities. He's just always there representing everybody. 

“My joke has been he'll probably show up in court and sue himself. I mean, how do you represent everybody and not have a conflict of interest? That’s my personal question and I don’t get it.”

Charleston fired back.

“Mr. Turner’s attempt at humor communicates an important truth. Lawyers attract clients because they are effective, and my firm has earned its reputation for effectiveness,’’ he said in an email. “Because of that, we attract good clients in our community and across the country. When lawyers win for their clients, the opposition sometimes tries to change the outcome, or how the public views it, through disinformation based on unfounded allegations. Sadly, that appears to be Mr. Turner’s only goal.”

Colvin alleges racial bias

Colvin, who is Black, questioned whether Arnold is singling out minority business owners downtown.

“Allegedly, there is a history of adverse treatment of minorities who made similar investments in the downtown area. A lot of which happened during Mr. Arnold’s decade-long tenure as a historic commissioner,” Colvin wrote in his email. 

Colvin cited several minority developers who have faced adversity from the Historic Resources Commission or city inspectors. They include John Chen, a former owner of the Prince Charles Hotel; Sam McGill, who owned the Wings Shop in the Kress Building before Colvin’s group bought it; and Harry Sutherland, the former owner of Bentley’s Nightclub. 

Malzone disagreed with Colvin, whom he called a friend and business associate, about racial bias being a factor.

“I'm not going to specify, but I will say many of those people were poor business people that did not follow any rules,” Malzone said.

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com. 

Fayetteville, Mitch Colvin, Tisha Waddell, Kress Building, Historic Resources Commission, Jonathan Charleston, Bruce Arnold, George Turner, historic buildings