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Light display dispute isn’t ending quickly or quietly

By Steve Huffman
shuffman@salisburypost.com
The debate about a proposed drive-through holiday light park for Rowan County is one of those issues not likely to go away with the flip of a switch.
The promoter, Mike Miller of Miller Davis Studios, said he was harassed by county officials ó well, one county official, anyway ó until he withdrew his offer to bring the park to the area.
But Carl Ford, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said he was surprised Tuesday when Miller retracted his offer.
“It was going to pass 4-to-1, maybe 5-to-nothing,” Ford said. “It was going to be approved, I’m sure of that.”
In a scathing three-page address, Miller blamed Commissioner Tina Hall as the crux of the problem that forced he and Mike Howard of Midwest Display to retract the offer.
Miller said Hall sought to micro-manage the operation down to demanding to know the profit off a single cup of cocoa. He also said Hall told him and others during a meeting last week that she wanted to see how the park worked this year before deciding if the county wanted to take over its operation next year.
Miller said going to the trouble of opening the park for a single year wasn’t worth the effort if the county was going to take over its operation.
“For someone to blatantly say they wanted someone else to do it for a year to see if it was feasible, that’s just not kosher,” Miller said.
But Hall denies she ever said she was interested in the county taking over the park, and said she feels Miller was looking for someone to blame when he realized having the offering operational by this holiday season wasn’t possible.
“I had not planned that, no, sir,” Hall said when asked if she’d mentioned the county taking over control of the park. “I had no grand plan.”
She said the county has invested more than $9 million in developing Summit Corporate Center, the site where the park was to have been staged. She said her questioning Miller was simply her way of looking out for the investment of taxpayers.
“As an elected official, I’m surprised he seems offended by these questions,” Hall said. “It’s not only my right, it’s what I’m expected to ask. I’m surprised he didn’t have the details worked out.”
Hall said officials in charge of the light show at Tanglewood Park in Winston-Salem begin planning their annual event in February. She said lights there are already being erected for the show that starts in December.
Hall said she questioned if Miller and Midwest Display could have gotten a park in Rowan County ready even if commissioners had given their approval in August when the matter was first brought before them.
“The devil’s in the details, and there are lots of devils out there,” Hall said. “Multiple times I asked him questions and he had no answers.”
Still, Hall said she supported the concept of the park and likely would have voted in favor of it had Miller returned with some answers. She said she was involved in a meeting last week with Miller, County Manager Gary Page and a handful of other county leaders.
Hall said that at that meeting, things were “cordial” and she had no idea Miller was going to address her as he did at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I had no indication Mr. Miller planned a personal critique of me,” Hall said. “My only thought was, ‘He’s not going to be able to pull it off this year.’ I don’t know why he wanted to hang it on me. I don’t know why he cut and ran like he did.”
Miller was interrupted about a third of a way into his address when County Attorney Jay Dees stopped him, saying his words were “inappropriate.” Ford agreed, asking Miller to sit down.
“You have looked for every reason to either kill the project or remove Miller Davis, a Rowan County employer of more than 25, from the project,” Miller’s address to commissioners stated. “For 2009, you have succeeded.”
On Friday, Miller said he remains astounded by the reception he received from commissioners, and Hall in particular.
“To be honest, it’s a little ridiculous,” he said.
While Hall said Miller stood to make a minimum of $100,000 from the park, Miller disagreed. He said he and Howard were running a risk of losing money if the weather turned bad and the park had to be closed.
Miller said a minimum of 20,000 cars ó at a cost of $15 per vehicle ó would have to tour the park simply in order for it to turn a profit.
“This could have lost money for Midwest,” he said. “We could have lost a lot of money. There was a lot of risk involved.”
Miller said the county is missing out on a great opportunity for the event to have generated money for numerous charities and civic organizations. He said plans were for members of individual groups ó representatives of local PTA’s, for example ó to staff the park’s concession stands on certain nights as fundraisers.
Miller said that on those nights, 50 cents of the $15 from each car would be turned over to that individual charity or organization.
“I thought we’d be welcomed instead of persecuted in an open forum,” Miller said.
He closed the statement he’d planned to read to commissioners by saying Midwest was looking to relocate its manufacturing and storage operations from Marion, Ind., to the East Coast and had been considering Rowan County.
“We have been lobbying hard for Midwest to locate in Rowan County and bring 20 to 50 jobs in the process,” Miller wrote. “Now, after this frustrating process, it looks as if Midwest will locate in Virginia.”
Ford, the commission chairman, said if Midwest had considered moving its operations to Rowan County, no one had mentioned it to him.
“I didn’t know anything about that until I read it in the paper,” he said Friday. “If they brought it up before me, it went in one ear and out the other. I knew they’d talked about a storage facility, but that’s all I’d heard.”
Miller’s claim that Midwest was considering a move to Rowan County was backed by at least Rowan County official.
Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission, said his agency “did have a file on the company” and had begun identifying potential sites for Midwest in Rowan County.
“Over the last number of weeks … we had pulled together properties that would suit and shared them and submitted them to be looked at,” he said. “It was what we consider a prospect.”
Of the property search, Van Geons said it was “real enough” that the EDC had talked with at least one property owner. He noted, however, that “we get that request from a lot of companies that are considering their options. We were taking that first step.”
And Van Geons said he wasn’t sure who among county officials knew of Midwest’s potential relocation. The issue did come up at some meetings, but those meetings focused on the light show, which was the more pressing matter.
“I don’t think it was ever part of an actual presentation,” he said of the firm’s site search.
Van Geons said the EDC and Midwest hadn’t discussed specific job numbers, but the estimate given in Miller’s statement “sounds reasonable to me.”
He said more details would have emerged had the effort to land Midwest continued. And those talks would have continued while Midwest worked to finalize plans for a Christmas lights display.
“The light show would have had them here,” he said. “They would have been here for the next couple of months, looking at the community.”
Now, with the light show apparently off and possibly headed elsewhere, Van Geons said he believes Midwest is “no longer interested” in Rowan as a potential home base for its business.
“Their time is going to be spent where that show is, not here in Rowan County,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if they came back and said, ‘We want to look at space.’ ”
Mike Howard of Midwest Display didn’t return phone calls from the Post.
Staff writer Scott Jenkins contributed to this story.

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