The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 20, 2012

L&S facility is no bargain for the county

The News Courier

— The scenery along North Jefferson Street begins with views of the beautiful historic homes that are plentiful in downtown Athens — homes with wraparound porches, well-tended lawns and overflowing flower beds.

Soon, though, the landscape becomes bleak, dotted with decades-old mill homes in need of paint.

Along this stretch, not far from the Limestone County Jail, are the remnants of a shopping center that once was the hub of a community on the edges, politely referred to as a “low-income” district and home to much of the county’s Hispanic population.

Residents here, many without access to transportation in this small town with no public system, would walk to L&S Foodland for groceries and a friendly chat with cashiers, or to Fred’s Discount Store for toiletries, clothing and household items. Mothers pushed babies in strollers, holding onto toddlers’ hands, for a “meat-and-three” at Stephanie’s Restaurant, before it closed and left the building to a series of failed successors.

One by one, the businesses closed, until its anchor, L&S, closed in 2011, leaving only two hair salons on a back leg of the center, next to a space with boarded windows and graffiti-covered walls.

The property’s owners, Dick and Billy Smith, are selling the property — appraised for about $1 million — for $525,000.

Members of the Limestone County Commission, exclusive of chairman Stanley Menefee who opposes the plan, will vote Monday to purchase the dilapidated property as a future home for its financially struggling Community Corrections program, which loses its current lease in June.

While it is true the location near the county jail would be a perfect fit for Community Corrections, a program intended to keep non-violent criminals from overcrowded state penitentiaries by helping them become productive citizens, that program would use only 5,000 of the 40,000 square feet at the center.

We can’t help wondering how the county intends to pay to refurbish the center, including the standalone restaurant, which would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, before it could be occupied by county programs or rented to private businesses.

And what would the commission do with the three occupied rental homes also on the seven acres?

Don’t these commissioners recall the preceding commission’s many years of debate concerning the future of the aging building that housed the previous county jail?

To demolish the outdated and unsafe facility would be cost prohibitive.

To refurbish it would seem feasible only to the foolish.

Finally, four years after the new jail was built, a compromise was reached and, in 2009, the main portion of the facility was bulldozed, leaving a small section of office space that adjoins the offices of Limestone County Schools.

These remaining offices were to be renovated and used as desperately needed space for the school system. In May 2012, that portion of office space remains exactly as it did the day after the demolition of the adjoining former jail, an eyesore visible to any visitors of our quaint and picturesque downtown.

The commission’s inaction on this property — along with its current commitments to a $2 million renovation of the Limestone County Courthouse and expansion to the existing county jail — tells us the L&S Foodland center could remain a mostly abandoned eyesore and temptation to vandals for many years before a decision is made on its potential uses.

It tells us that during that time, Limestone County commissioners would become landlords to tenants of the three rental homes, which surely would bring with them very little rent and a myriad of maintenance headaches.

While the property seems a good deal on the surface, the inherent costs and problems of making it viable space override any “bargain.”

What North Athens needs is a new shopping center on that land, a space that would provide residents with convenient and clean shopping opportunities and a source of pride in the neighborhood.

This “deal” is better suited to real estate or business professionals than a county government.

Commissioners: Think before you vote. How will this purchase help Limestone County?

Because we can’t see its benefits.