Taxpayer unrest

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Surry citizens group questioning county ventures

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

SURRY — Changes at the Surry Seafood Company restaurant and a potential grocery store venture involving county funds have raised concerns among some residents as well as a Surry County supervisor. 

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Dendron resident Thomas Byrd is calling a meeting of the Surry County Concerned Citizens later this month over the county’s debt and its leadership, and Dendron District Supervisor Michael Drewry was dismayed at how difficult it was to obtain financial information about the Surry Seafood Company’s payments to the county. 

Both Byrd and Drewry question plans, to be formally revealed at the May 3 Surry Board of Supervisors meeting, that would involve the county spending taxpayer money to build a shell building as a way to entice a grocery retailer to set up shop. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Part of the deal includes Surry County purchasing property from the family of Surry District Supervisor and Board Chairman John Seward. 

Drewry sees the grocery project as similar to the restaurant, where he recently learned that the departing management team had paid the county $27,000 over the past two years — only about 10 percent of the agreed upon amount, he said. 

The amount paid should have been about $284,000, said Drewry. 

The management team, comprised of Erica Brime and Adam Young, was to pay 12 percent of the restaurant’s gross receipts as rent, Drewry said. 

Efforts to reach Brime and Young were unsuccessful. 

Drewry said the most disturbing aspect about the payment failure was that he had to file a formal Freedom of Information request to the county administration to get answers to his questions, and didn’t receive the information until recently.

The lease with the management team was executed in 2016. 

Drewry believes the Board of Supervisors should have been made aware of the situation earlier. 

Surry County Administrator Tyrone Franklin said the delinquent payment situation went on for so long because the county was trying to give the management team the “benefit of the doubt.” 

The management team also had concerns about the percentage amount and Surry County did not want to inflict harm on the restaurant, Franklin said. 

Franklin said that as part of the separation agreement, the county will obtain ownership of all property associated with the restaurant as a way to make up for the lack of payments. 

In all, Surry County invested more than a million dollars to renovate the former Rocky Bottom Grill and turn it into the Surry Seafood Restaurant, along with a public marina. Much of the funding for the marina portion came from grants. 

Pack Brothers Hospitality plans to take over running the restaurant and marina in May. Randy and Brian Pack are part owners of Smithfield Station in Smithfield. 

Seward said the grocery store venture is not the same as the restaurant.

The marina was built to provide public water access and the property just happened to have a restaurant on it, he said. 

The building was in too good of shape to tear down and after being renovated and opened as the Surry Seafood Company restaurant, reportedly had ample business, said Seward. 

Drewry disagrees, and sees the use of taxpayer money to build the shell building for the grocery store, as well as leasing it to a private entity, as similar to the restaurant venture. 

The grocery store project is estimated to cost about $3.5 million, Drewry said. 

Residents want a grocery store, but not like this, Drewry said.

Seward said the county has been doing everything possible to get a reputable grocery store to come to Surry County and now those with the capital and know-how are interested, he said, adding that he’s been left out of the discussions on the project given his family connection to the pending land purchase.

The land in question is located on Route 10 west of the Town of Surry, just outside town limits. 

“It’s a real lifeline for the community to have a grocery store,” Seward said.

The county has had small mom and pop-type grocery stores before, but the buildings have tended to be run down with limited inventory, said Franklin. 

Seward said he’s willing to be “a little unconventional” to get a full-service grocery store in Surry County. 

Franklin said the proposed grocery store site is eligible for Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewer service and was selected because of its location outside the town limits.

In that way, the county can proceed without having to involve the Surry Town Council, he said.

Two years ago, Surry County and the Surry Town Council were at odds over signing over its sewer treatment facilities to HRSD. After much resistance, the Surry Town Council relented and HRSD took over operations. 

Meanwhile, Byrd is concerned that Surry County doesn’t have the population to support a full–scale grocery store. He points to the Fresh Pride grocery store that closed in Waverly as an example.

“I won’t dispute there’s a need for one,” he said, adding that his concern centers around a possible failure and county residents being stuck with the bill. 

Byrd also points to Surry’s declining population as another drawback to the proposed venture. 

Surry County has lost more than 7 percent of its population in the last seven years, according to data estimates recently released by the U.S. Census. 

Surry County had an estimated population of 6,540 for 2017, as compared to 7,065 at the time of the 2010 census. 

If the county puts out the money to construct the building and the retailer ends up going out of business, the taxpayers are out the money, Byrd said. 

Byrd is concerned that if these ventures — the restaurant and grocery store — don’t work out, then the county will have to raise taxes to cover the costs. He plans to hear the concerns of residents at the April 26 Concerned Citizens meeting and take those to the Board of Supervisors. 

“Either hear us now or meet us at the polls,” he said. 

The next Board of Supervisors election is in 2019.  

Franklin said the county is in good shape, debt-wise, and so far, it’s done everything it could to get a grocery store, to no avail.

Surry ranked thirteenth in per capita debt, at $5,327, out of 95 counties in Virginia, according to the 2016 Comparative Report of Local Government, published by the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts. 

By comparison, Isle of Wight County is fourth, at $6,035 per capita debt, according to the 2016 report.  

With this plan, “we know there’s a profit to be made,” Franklin said, adding that it’s time to “step outside the box” and do something for Surry County.  {/mprestriction}