Sue Haithcock Brookshire appears before the cap to the old water tower in Mount Gilead.
Sue Haithcock Brookshire, one of several historic preservation advocates who say they worked diligently to raise funds to preserve the old water tower in Mount Gilead, stands in front of the new cap of the tower, which her group says the town voted to demolish before time had run out. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press
Editor’s note, 8/13/2018: This article has been revised to reflect additional clarifying and correcting information that Carolina Public Press has received since originally publishing this article on July 23. CPP also posted an earlier revision based on information that is now known to be inaccurate. Those issues involve three factual issues:
  • According to public records and the accounts of public officials and residents, Mt. Gilead town commissioners discussed waiting six months before tearing down the old water tower during their November 2017 meeting. Officials did not take a formal vote on offering an extension. Later, in May 2018, the board voted tear down the tower, a decision that came a few days short of the six-month mark from the November meeting. Audio from the town meeting on December 2017 confirms that commissioners took no action on the water tower at that time. This contradicts previous information that residents provided to CPP and that appeared in a previous version of this article.
  • While researching and reporting this story, CPP emailed the mayor a set of questions. The mayor referred these questions to the town manager to be addressed. Contrary to a statement in earlier versions of this article, none of those questions were regarding allegations of inappropriate conduct. The mayor has denied allegations of inappropriate conduct during public proceedings.
  • Since this story published, Gavin Dotson of Southern Corrosion, said he conducted cursory observations on the old water tower and estimated a formal inspection would cost $4,500 and that treating the tank’s exterior would cost $124,000. This agrees with records that Dotson provided to the town. According to Dotson, he did not indicate that the old tower could be structurally sound without undergoing repairs, contrary to a third party’s characterization of his statements that appeared in an earlier version of this article.

The recent demolition of an old water tower is creating division in one small town in central North Carolina.

The Town Commission of Mount Gilead voted unanimously to tear down the structure on May 1 and had it removed on June 27. Town leaders say the tower was going to cost more money to tear down the longer they waited, giving them few options.

A group of residents who were trying to save the historic structure say they thought they had received the town’s promise to give them six months to come up with alternatives. The historic preservation advocates worked for months to come up with funds to save the tower, they said.

But they say the town acted while the clock was still ticking when commissioners voted in May and residents had no advance knowledge that the board would be asked to decide at that time.

They also accuse one town official, Mayor Joseph “Chip” Miller, of exercising inappropriate influence on the process.

Some of those who spoke out publicly for preserving the structure have described harassment over the issue, including publicly accusing the mayor at a town meeting.

Mount Gilead’s new water tower once stood beside the old one, whose cap appears at its feet. Historic preservation advocates are upset about the town’s handling of the decision to demolish the structure. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

To demolish or not to demolish

While the idea of removing the tower was not new last year, it received a push from Mayor Miller last summer.

He has described seeing a photo showing the town’s old and new water towers together, which appeared in the Charlotte and Myrtle Beach newspapers last summer. He thought the photo made the town look bad and was intended to belittle the municipality in southern Montgomery County.

The towers appeared in the background of a photo depicting criminal suspects that accompanied a crime story. The people pictured and not the towers were not the topic of the article. The mayor has said this was one reason for wanting the tower removed, according to town meeting records.

The old tower stood on municipally owned land next to the current functional one. The site also contains other equipment that must remain secure to protect the town’s water supply.

But residents who thought the old tower was worth preserving tell a different story. They asked Southern Corrosion of Roanoke Rapids to evaluate the tower. The company concluded the old building, which dates to the 1930s, could be saved, according to resident Stephanie Ross.

However, Gavin Dotson of Southern Corrosion, who examined the tower last year, said he only provided cost estimates for a more thorough inspection of the structure and for painting to preserve the heavily rusted exterior. He told CPP that he would not have recommended trying to preserve the tower without taking those potentially costly steps.

Several residents made a case for saving the tower during public comments at the commission’s Nov. 7, 2017, meeting. According to the town minutes, resident Sue Brookshire challenged Miller’s interpretation of the newspaper photo. She told commissioners that she had personally contacted the editor of the Charlotte Observer about why the photo was used and he told her it was “due to the historic value and charm of the tower.”

“This tower represents the past and the present, and they would love for their town to still have a landmark like this,” Brookshire said, according to the minutes.

“It could have stood for another 100 years,” she recently told Carolina Public Press. “It did have rust, but it was no danger to anybody.” She said it was built in the 1930s from money from the Works Progress Administration.

“We just wanted to have a conversation with town members,” Ross told CPP. “It did open up that conversation.”

According to the minutes, Ross addressed the commissioners, emphasizing the lack of real objections to the tower, other than it was old. “No reports have stated that it was unsafe for drinking water,” she said, according to the minutes. “And no one has come forth saying it was an eyesore.”

Other residents described various reasons they thought the town should try to preserve the tower. Rodney McRae told the commissioners it should be kept as a backup and said he hoped the town could find a way to save it.

Shaun Welland said unique older structures like the water tower are an asset to towns. “Please look for attractions like this and appreciate their beauty,” he said, according to the minutes. “Our town has this beauty, and we need to appreciate it.”

But minutes from the same meeting show that the town received estimates on preserving the tower from Southern Corrosion that included inspection and painting the tank for a total of about $130,000, more than five times the $22,800 demolition estimate officials had received from Iseler Demolition in July 2017.

Town Manager Matt Christian told CPP that commissioners tried to prioritize competing needs in making the decision.

“Our town has significant infrastructure needs, not unlike many small towns across our state,” he said. “The water tower had not been maintained at all since it was decommissioned in the ’70s.”

Faced with the options of demolishing the tower or giving the citizens who wanted to preserve it time to find a way to keep the old tank, Commissioner Mitch Taylor made the motion for giving citizens six months to raise money. Other commissioners seemed to agree. Although the board did not formally vote on the extension of time at that meeting or later, preservation advocates looked for the necessary funds to save the tower, apparently believing they had six months before the town would return to the issue.

The six-month window from that November vote would have ended in May. But on May 1, several days before the six-month mark, the board voted to proceed with demolition.

Those wanting to preserve the tower say they were blindsided.

The town was able to keep the entire top part of the tower. Christian said the town is developing plans to use the lid as the roof of a permanent structure, which would be built in the park or other civic spaces where all citizens could use the space.

Some of the preservationists have obtained part of a leg of the old tower, which they say they plan to repurpose.

Some of the historic preservation advocates who opposed demolition of the old water tower in Mount Gilead have obtained a large portion of one of the structure’s legs, which they say they plan to repurpose. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

Lumber company largesse, mayor’s conflict of interest?

The issue of demolishing the old tower was not a new one and had been discussed by previous town boards. They never acted, since money was never available for the task.

That changed when a local business, Jordan Lumber, donated $75,000 to the town in July 2017. Of those funds, $25,000 went toward the tower demolition and $50,000 went to help restore Stanback Park, Christian said.

“They are a family-owned company who have been generous corporate citizens in many capacities over several generations,” Christian said.

But Mayor Miller is an employee of Jordan Lumber. On the company’s website, he’s listed as the company’s timberlands manager.

At the time of the donation, the Town Commission had tabled discussions of demolishing the water tower.

“It is difficult to say whether or not the town would have proceeded without the donation,” Christian said. “Currently, the town is in decent financial condition and could have appropriated $25,000 from reserves if that was the consensus of the board.”

While the donation wasn’t necessarily earmarked for the demolition, residents who wanted the tower preserved find it hard to believe that the timing was just a coincidence.

Bruce Haywood was part of a former board that considered demolishing the old tank. During the Dec. 5, 2017 meeting, he said the cost to demolish the tank then would have been $10,000. Over time, costs go up.

“Deferred maintenance will eventually lead to larger liabilities and often higher costs of repair,” Christian said. “Our board has had to grapple with these dilemmas on a regular basis.”

Ross has accused Miller of ethical misconduct for not formally recusing himself from votes on the water tower when he was the primary advocate for its demolition and an employee of the company whose donation made it possible.

At a December commission meeting, Ross also accused the mayor of harassment, as she demanded that he recuse himself, according to the minutes.

Welland also challenged Miller at the town’s Feb. 6 meeting on recusing himself from future votes on the fate of the water tower.

Miller publicly defended himself against these accusations. He said he would not recuse himself because he did not see the need legally. North Carolina laws prevent municipal officials from recusing unless specific conflicts of interest exist. Christian told CPP that it would not have been possible for the mayor to recuse, since those legal requirements didn’t exist.

The point was also somewhat moot. As the mayor, Miller would only have voted in case of a tie. The May 1 vote was unanimous, so his vote wasn’t needed. However, a recusal in advance would have indicated that he was sitting out the process even if a tie had occurred.

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Ben Ledbetter is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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