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Mediator: Owners might have to give up control to save Kilby Hotel

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

The Kilby Hotel, a historic landmark to the resourcefulness and enterprise of black business people during the Jim Crow era in High Point, may yet escape the wrecking ball.

The Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission voted to approve a demolition order with a 180-delay at its Nov. 19 meeting.

The delay gives owners Burnie McElrath and Myra Williams time to raise funds to shore up the building, which has been deemed a safety hazard by the city of High Point. The roof of the hotel, which was erected in the 1910s, has collapsed, and the city blocked off a section of Washington Street in front of the building in October because of concerns that passersby could be injured if it fell down.

Burnie McElrath, a fourth-generation co-owner of the building, credited a presentation by Benjamin Speller with persuading the local preservation commission to grant the delay.

Speller was hired through a $1,500 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to act as a mediator between the owners and the city of High Point, which has been seeking the hotel’s demolition. A widely respected African- American historic preservationist in Durham, Speller serves on the board of the National Trust.

The delay has caused frustration among some members of the Washington Street community, who must not only contend with the safety hazard posed by the building but are also dealing with business being hampered because of the shutdown of the street.

“I think people in the neighborhood are wanting a quick resolution more than anything else,” said Patrick Harman, executive director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation. “It contributes to the perception that the neighborhood is falling down on itself.”

City officials share the community members’ frustration, Assistant City Manager Randy McCaslin indicated. He said the city is exploring all options, but declined to specify whether any of those might include legal action.

“We have been put on notice by two structural engineers — theirs and ours — that we have an unsafe building there,” McCaslin said. “We’ve got the road blocked off to protect citizens from any potential collapse that may occur. We’ve got a school, Penn-Griffin, where administrators are telling us they’re getting quite an earful from parents who are having a tough time getting to the school. Also the impact it is having on our public transportation system and routes — it’s making it hard to serve that area as well as stay on any schedule. It’s having a very negative impact.”

Harman noted that with Washington Street blocked off, the only way to get from the west end to the east end is to take Centennial Street to Kivett Drive and then College Drive around to the other end of the street — a route that is confusing even to most High Pointers. With the connection severed, motorists have been driving behind a building on the street and then along a sidewalk, leaving behind what Harman called a “mud pit.”

The Hayden-Harman Foundation is hosting “A Wish for My Community” kickoff at a new park on Washington Street that will showcase a sculpture by Greensboro artist Jim Gallucci on Saturday. Residents and other visitors will be invited to share their desires for the neighborhood by writing them on ribbons and tying them to a fence.

“We want to let people know that there’s still things going on on Washington Street,” Harman said.

Speller, who was involved with the successful effort to preserve the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, said this is one of the most unique and difficult projects he has ever worked on. Most owners are happy to relinquish ownership if it means that the heritage of the property can be preserved, he said. In this case, the owners have rejected suggestions that they sell. Typically, the owners will give the property to a nonprofit, which can raise money through taxdeductible donations. Speller said the Internal Revenue Service will not allow a nonprofit to collect funds to preserve the building as long as the owners retain ownership of the property.

“This is an unusual situation where the owner wants the public and the government to develop it and then put it back in place so that they can continue to own it,” Speller said. “That’s a conflict of interest.”

A report drafted by Speller on Nov. 19 recommends that “a public-private entity” be identified or created “that will negotiate with the current owners (Burnie McElrath and Myra Williams) of the Historic Kilby Hotel to allow acquisition of this historic landmark with protective covenants and a rehabilitation agreement for renovation for the goal of repurposing the structure as an anchor facility of the Washington Street Redevelopment Project.”

Bruce Davis, who represents part of High Point on the Guilford County Commission and who has taken on the role of spokesperson for the McElrath family in discussions with various parties to try to save the hotel, indicated that some progress is taking place.

“It’s part of my charge to bring the city and the McElraths together, as the spokesperson for the McElrath family,” Davis said. “I’ve talked to the mayor and several council members and Strib [Boynton], the city manager. I’m planning to have a one-on-one with the manager this week.”

Davis said he believes city leaders have softened their position and that previously they blamed Burnie McElrath for the deterioration of the building and didn’t recognize that for many years she was out of the loop because her brother was controlling the property. He said he also believes that McElrath and her daughter, Myra Williams, are beginning to appreciate that they will have to make some compromises to save the building.

“I think they realize that the reality of the matter is that if they don’t have the resources, the only thing they’re going to have if a pile of dust in an empty lot,” Davis said. “They have to get into a partnership with those who have the resources. They would probably have to take a back seat because if someone is putting up a lot of money then the investors would want to make the major decisions.”

He added, “[The family is] not totally happy with that. I think reality is starting to set in. The request for demolition is kind of a wake-up call.”

Speller said as an alternative to giving the building to a nonprofit, the owners could solicit investors, but they would still have to relinquish at least partial control.

“If she could put together an investment group and they’re going to bring it back to what it was, there could be quite a few tax [break] opportunities,” he said. “Most of them are not going to do it without quite a bit more control than she may be willing to yield.”

The owners have said that estimates for the cost of shoring up the building range from $175,000 to $300,000.

Davis said an account has been established “and some money seems to be coming in,” but did not elaborate. He said it’s his understanding that if adequate progress is made the Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission might vote to lift the demolition order in May 2014, or extend it for another six months.

“I think there’s still some hope,” he said. “The more we have the conversation within our community, the closer we get to a resolution. There are so many rumors. We have to let people know exactly what’s going on, exactly why it’s worth saving, let people know the McElraths’ position. I think we can get this done if more people understand and get on board.” !

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