Citizens Oppose Destination Cleveland County’s Proposed Use Of Historic Courthouse For Earl Scruggs Museum
As word spreads that the old historic courthouse is being considered for the Earl Scruggs Center, there are questions on the lips of many citizens of Cleveland County. Residents begin voicing concerns and asking questions of the County Manager, County Commissioners, Destination Cleveland County, and The Shelby Star.
People wanted to know if an agreement between Cleveland County and Destination Cleveland County for the use of the Historical Courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center was a “done deal.” They wanted to know where the artifacts that have been donated to the Cleveland County Historical Museum were being stored and if they would be returned to the museum once it is renovated. They asked where the money is coming from for renovations and who gets the money once the museum is open. They wanted to know who will run the museum and control the exhibits and any performances given on the premises. They wondered why the survey that supposedly proved DCC’s plans will generate $204 million over the next 10 years was mostly done by the DCC committee members themselves instead of being handled by a disinterested 3rd party.
Earl Scruggs Comes Home
On October 11, 2007, Earl Scruggs returned to Shelby for a sold-out “Coming Home” concert at the 1,200-seat Malcolm Brown Auditorium at Shelby High School, with proceeds going to the projects of Destination Cleveland County. It is the first time since September 6, 1974- more than 30 years ago- that Earl Scruggs has performed in his home county.
DCC Asks For The Courthouse For The Use As The Earl Scruggs Center
By November 2007, Destination Cleveland County is ready to gear up to garner funds for the Earl Scruggs Center- Songs and Stories of the Carolina Foothills and the Don Gibson Theatre. Their original concept included an uptown arena and a historical museum. These two projects are now not included in their five-year plan.
At the November 20, 2007, County Commissioners meeting, DCC member and Earl Scruggs’ nephew, J.T. Scruggs, publicly asked Commissioners for permission to use the Cleveland County Historic Courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center. Among the people, J. T. Scruggs introduced to speak in support of DCC were Mayor Ted Alexander and Roger Holland, President of Cleveland County Chamber, who later became architects for the Earl Scruggs Center project.
The County Commissioners voted to approve DCC’s request for County Manager David Dear and County Attorney Bob Yelton to begin negotiations on a lease and draw up a contractual agreement for the courthouse. Commissioner Johnny Hutchins said he would like to see a written document or draft of what he was approving, so he abstained from voting because of a lack of information DCC gave that night about their plans.
Commissioner Chairwoman Mary Accor asked that the proposed document is on the Commissioner’s agenda the second meeting in January 2008, and set January 15, 2008, as the deadline for a proposal of DCC’s plans for the building.
Also at the November 20, 2007 Commissioners meeting, DCC Chairwoman Brownie Plaster announced that, on November 19, 2007, DCC had been awarded $250,000 from Golden Leaf Foundation for the Earl Scruggs Center for restoring the courtroom of the Historical Courthouse. How did Golden Leaf Foundation approve a grant for DCC’s project before their lease of the Courthouse has been approved by the Commissioners?
Public Opposition To DCC’s Plans For The Earl Scruggs Center Escalates
From November 2007 to March 2008, The Star is flooded with mail and email. The future of the courthouse is debated on threads on their message board. The County Commissioners are also bombarded with letters. Former residents of Cleveland County who are concerned about the history and heritage of their hometown, weigh in. The naming of the building “Earl Scruggs Center” is very controversial.
DCC did not meet the January 15, 2008 deadline for the proposal of their plans for the building. This was just the first of many deadlines that they chose to ignore.
DCC’S Rhythm & Roots Marketing Brochure
In January 2008, Destination Cleveland County released its Rhythm & Roots marketing brochure. They list as DCC’s 2007 Board of Directors:
Millie Arey Wood,
John Schweppe, III
David Dear, County Manager
Rick Howell, City Manager
Jackie Sibley, Cleveland County Travel and Tourism Director
Marta Holden, DCC President and Executive Director
Also, the Rhythm & Roots marketing brochure lists members of Destination Cleveland County’s 2007 Strategic Planning Task Force. Three of the five Cleveland County Commissioners- Chair Mary Accor, Vice Chair Eddie Holbrook, and Jo Boggs- are listed as members of this Task Force who gave their time and energy to develop this five-year Strategic Plan.
(DCC only needs three of the five Commissioners to vote in favor of giving them the courthouse to use as the Earl Scruggs Center!)
Commissioner Eddie Holbrook gives a written Testimonial in the brochure.
Commissioner Mary Accor and Commissioner Jo Boggs endorse DCC on the DVD that is included with the Rhythm & Roots marketing brochure.
Also included in the Rhythm & Roots brochure: Estimated Budget is $30,000 for Web Design/Maintenance, which is done by Millennium Marketing owned by NC House of Representative Debbie Clary and her nephew Joseph Hurst.
DCC organizers say a total of $7 million is needed for renovations of the Earl Scruggs Center including the upgrade of the building itself. They say the project would be funded by donations, grants, and tax credits in addition to county money.
Although the use of the Courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center has not been granted, at January 22, 2008, County Commissioners Meeting, the Commissioners approve a six-year commitment totaling $1.5 million for renovations for the interior of the old courthouse. County Manager David Dear County Manager stated that any funding that is given to Destination Cleveland County will specifically be used to renovate the courthouse.
In an article written by DCC Chairwoman Brownie Plaster for The Star on January 27, 2008, she states that DCC leaders have been in dialogue with the county Commissioners since July 2006 about the usage of the Historic Courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center.
DCC continues its plans with confidence and the Museum Planning Team for the Earl Scruggs Center come to Cleveland County on February 4, 2008, to formulate designs for the interior of the Courthouse. The public is invited to meet them.
Citizens continue to speak in opposition to DCC’s plans and their efforts seem to fall on deaf ears. Commissioners Eddie Holbrook and Johnny Hutchins said at the February 5, 2008 Commissioners meeting that the public is free to talk at any time about the Scruggs Center, with Commissioner Holbrook mentioning a possible question-and-answer session in the future to clear up any misinformation.
The Star promotes the Earl Scruggs Center for DCC and in an editorial on February 10, 2008, Publisher Skip Foster calls the citizens in opposition to the project “Debbie Downers.”
Citizens Hold Two Town Hall Meetings And A Courthouse Rally
The question-and-answer session Commissioner Holbrook mentioned never happened. So the citizens decide to host a Town Hall Meeting. Hoping to hear from all sides, they invite the public, the County Commissioners, City Council members, and other officials to attend and publicly discuss the projected Earl Scruggs Center.
In fact, two Town Hall Meetings were held at the Cleveland County Memorial Library. Also, a rally for those who opposed the Earl Scruggs Center is located at the Historic Courthouse and was held on the Lafayette Street side of the Courthouse grounds. DVDs of those meetings are available to the public. News media attending the events included WBTV in Charlotte.
County resident, Brendan LeGrand, who had spoken at County Commissioners meetings on October 2, 2007, and February 5, 2008, opposing the Earl Scruggs Center at the Historic Courthouse organized the Town Hall Meetings and moderated the events.
First Town Hall Meeting
The First of the two Town Hall Meetings was held on Tuesday, February 26, 2008. About 80 people were in attendance, including Commissioners Eddie Holbrook and Johnny Hutchins.
Concerned citizens voiced opinions about the future of the courthouse. Citizens said they felt left out of the decision-making process of the Earl Scruggs Center and did not want it in the county-owned courthouse. Many members of the audience said they felt the Scruggs Center location is a done deal based on how it’s been described so far by the county and DCC.
Commissioners Holbrook and Hutchins dismissed the claims that it is a done deal, saying that no deal has been struck to house the museum at the courthouse and nothing is finalized. Holbrook said a question-and-answer session could happen after a regularly scheduled business meeting to clear up any misinformation between the public and the county.
Second Town Hall Meeting
The second of the Town Hall Meetings were held Tuesday, March 11, 2008, at the Cleveland County Memorial Library. Commissioners Eddie Holbrook, Johnny Hutchins, and Mary Accor attended the meeting.
Destination Cleveland County’s Rhythm and Roots marketing brochure is shared at the meeting. DCC’s Strategic Planning Task Force lists three County Commissioners- Eddie Holbrook, Mary Accor, and Jo Boggs- as members who that made DCC’s 5-year plan for the Don Gibson Theatre and the Earl Scruggs Center.
In the brochure is Eddie Holbrook’s written testimony endorsing the projects. Shown at the meeting is DCC’s eight-minute sales promotion DVD that features Commissioner Mary Accor and Commissioner Jo Boggs on film endorsing these DCC’s projects.
DCC only needs these 3 of the 5 commissioners to vote ‘yes’ to get the lease of the courthouse approved for Earl Scruggs Center. (copy of Rhythm & Roots marketing brochure available.)
Commissioner Mary Accor gives out note cards to attendants to write out questions they want to be answered and says they will be answered at the next Commissioners meeting.
This never happens because the Commissioners vote at the next meeting to approve DCC’s use of the courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center.
The following Sunday, March 16, 2008, citizens opposing the county allowing DCC to turn the courthouse into the Earl Scruggs Center held a “Rally ’Round your Courthouse” peaceful protest at the courthouse.
Organizer Brendan LeGrand borrowed a bullhorn from the City of Shelby Chief of Police to address the crowd, as there was no sound system set up outside the courthouse. News media attending included Charlotte television stations and The Star.
The next day, March 17, 2008, The Star ran an article on the front page about the Courthouse Rally, sitting citizens voicing their displeasure at Destination Cleveland County’s proposed use of the building. The article says, “Brendan LeGrand, armed with a bullhorn and clad in camouflage and combat boots, let the gathering against the DCC’s plans.”
Actually, Brendan LeGrand was wearing black jeans, black and white stripe turtlenecks topped with a paint-splattered t-shirt, and a black cap with the word “FAITH” in white letters. The only camouflage she was wearing was black, ladies’ fashion combat style boots with camouflage fabric insets with purple and green tie-dyed shoe laces.
Mrs. LeGrand called The Star publisher Skip Foster and told him it appeared The Star was trying to portray her as a militant. She told him the only camouflage she had on was the insets in the fashion combat-style boots.
Two days later on March 19, 2008, The Star ran a picture of her taken at the Sunday Rally and stated that Brendan LeGrand contacted The Star to say that she was not wearing camouflage or combat boots at Sunday’s courthouse rally. Since it is obvious from the picture that the fashion boots are combat-style boots, was The Star trying to add a liar to their portrayal of her?
The citizens who gathered on the Courthouse grounds that Sunday afternoon was dressed casually. Most were wearing jeans or sweats. None of the other news media present at the Rally made reference to anyone’s attire.
Preview Of Lease Agreement
On Monday, March 17, 2008, at 4:55 PM, The Star shows online the terms of the lease agreement for the Earl Scruggs Center. The Star tells this in print the next day, even before the Commissioners meet to vote on it.
The article tells that the lease is for 10 years at $1 each year with an option for another ten years, the Cleveland County government will retain and repair the exterior and interior of the property. However, DCC can make improvements on the property including “major renovations” that do not disturb the structural integrity of the property. Renovations must begin within 12 months of lease signing, and renovations must be done and the museum has to be operational within 60 months from the date of the lease. Renovations must be approved by the county. The museum must be open to the public for at least 30 hours each week. At least eight of those hours must be for free admission to Cleveland County residents. No more than 20 percent of exhibit space can be dedicated to one person or entity. DCC will pay any taxes during the lease. DCC will have access to “artifacts and other collectibles” owned by the county that are currently in the courthouse.
County Commissioners Approve DCC’s Lease For The Historic Courthouse For Use As The Earl Scruggs Center
To set the stage for the County Commissioners Meeting of March 18, 2008, a Cleveland County Sheriff’s Department K-9 Unit is parked at the entrance in front of the Charlie Harry Building for all to see as they arrive for the Commissioners Meeting.
Mayor Ted Alexander stands at the door of the commissioners’ chamber giving out bright green “Yes, DCC” stickers to DCC supporters as they enter.
During the Commissioners Meeting, two armed Sheriff’s Deputies stand along the wall of the commissioners’ chamber on the right-hand side of the room where members of Destination Cleveland County sit as if to protect them.
The commissioners’ chamber was filled- standing room only- with both critics and supporters of the proposed Scruggs Center location. During the public comment portion of the meeting, several county residents voiced their concerns before the commissioners voted.
Brendan LeGrand addressed the board and told them that they still have a tenant in the building and must terminate that lease before they can enter into another lease for the property. She gives the Commissioners the following documents:
1. A prepared statement
2. A copy of the 1975 lease agreement between Cleveland County and the Cleveland County Historical Museum
showing the terms required to terminate the lease are six months’ notice in writing.
3. Acquisition form showing that the artifacts were given to the museum unconditionally.
4. Articles of Incorporation of Cleveland County Historical Museum, Inc. and a statement telling that the Secretary of State’s office says that the museum is still current and active. Mrs. LeGrand tells the Commissioners that the museum did not fail. It failed by the Commissioners who did not abide by the terms of the lease in maintaining the building. The building closed for repairs and the Commissioners never allocated money to repair the building. Commissioner Mary Accor and Commissioner Ronnie Hawkins were on the board in 2004 when the building closed for repairs and they are still on the board in 2008.
Commissioner Johnny Hutchins asked County Attorney Bob Yelton, “What makes the old lease terminated?” Mr. Yelton explained that in his research and opinion, based on cases and statutes in North Carolina, when a museum association abandoned the building and stayed abandoned for a period of over 180 days, it was the county’s prerogative to take over the building free of the lease and also take control of all of the property in the building. This property has been abandoned for four or five years.
It is necessary to stop right here and tell why the Cleveland County Historical Museum was closed:
Cleveland County Historical Museum Closes For Repairs
The building was not abandoned. It was closed in the middle of April 2004 by the county. As the county owns the building, David Dear, Assistant County Manager at the time, asked the Museum Director of the Cleveland County Historical Museum for the keys to the building and told the museum staff to take an indefinite, unpaid leave. The doors were locked by the county, locking all artifacts and records inside.
Minutes from the Cleveland County Historical Museum Board Meetings from 2002 to 2004 tell of the neglect of the courthouse building. Board members refer to the poor condition of the building, the fact that it leaks, there is dampness, and how the heating and air conditioning are not working properly. Bathrooms are old and not usable for large groups. There is currently no space. Upstairs archives must be moved to the first floor because of water and moisture damage. The courtroom was painted and the ceiling also, but it still leaks and needs ceiling repairs, plasterwork, and doors on all four sides need to be replaced. They say they would like to open the courtroom to visitors. Electrical work needs doing and painting all through the building needs to be done. Several other areas need much-needed repairs. There is talk of asking the county for another building, as the condition of the courthouse building is not suitable for the artifacts.
Another recurring theme from the minutes of the board meetings is a lack of funds. The board talks of needing to get the county to spend some money on the museum. They talk of grants applied for.
It seems that the exterior of the building was kept in better shape than the interior. Minutes in 2003 told that the county is doing a great job on the outside of the building.
On March 23, 2004, less than a month before the museum closes for repairs, an article in The Star tells about a year in the planning, the historic square undergoes a major facelift. The article says, “Work began Monday to renovate the sidewalks, infrastructure, and greenery in uptown Shelby’s court square… Cutting the centuries-old trees is part of the changes… The plan next week is to begin building a new curb and guttering… The City of Shelby and Cleveland County are paying for the makeover.”
Item number 4 of the lease agreement the Cleveland County Historical Museum made with the county in August 1975 stated that the county would maintain and repair the building as it would any other county building. So why did the County Commissioners neglect the courthouse building and allow it to get into such disrepair that it had to close?
SBI Investigation Of Embezzlement At The Cleveland County Historical Museum
Even though the courthouse building closes by the middle of April, The Star writes nothing about the closing until May 22, 2004. This article tells that the SBI was called in to investigate county museum finances when the bank called the county in April about the use of money in the association’s account. The release stated that the museum is being refurbished, and association personnel went on indefinite, unpaid leave and closed the museum. Cleveland County District Attorney Bill Young names embezzlement as an example of the type of financial crime to be examined in the case.
After more than a year-long investigation of embezzlement, a museum assistant is arrested in September 2005 and accused by a Cleveland County grand jury of stealing $200,000 between 1999 and December 2004.
On Tuesday, April 3, 2007, the former museum assistant pleaded guilty to five counts of felony larceny in Superior Court. She was ordered to repay $90,000 restitution to the county. Evidence showed that she would write checks by signing the museum director’s name.
In January 2008, the former museum employee was taken into custody to serve anywhere between 19 and 24 total months. By pleading guilty, she avoided having the case go to a jury trial. She served her time in a state prison in Raleigh.
County Officials Knew The Historical Museum And Artifacts Were Not Abandoned
On April 26, 2003, at the Merry-Go-Round Festival, when Jim Allen announced his group’s plans for the Southern Music Heritage Museum to be a part of the Cleveland County Historical Museum at the old courthouse, the Cleveland County Historical Museum was still open.
As the group held their first formal meeting on February 24, 2004, to brainstorm and formulate their plans, the museum was still open.
The museum closed just before the next Merry-Go-Round Festival was held on April 24, 2004. Bobbi Gibson, widow of Don Gibson, and Earl Scruggs and his wife Louise were in Shelby that weekend to be honored at the awards ceremony for the Merry-Go-Round Festival held in Hamilton Hall at First National Bank. They visited the recently closed Cleveland County Historical Museum.
It is evident that County Attorney Bob Yelton was aware of Jim Allen’s intent to reopen the museum since he was the attorney who formed the North Carolina Southern Music Heritage Alliance, Inc., a 501 (c)(3) on July 27, 2004, for Jim Allen and his group and Bob Yelton is listed as the agent for the corporation.
An article in The Star on January 1, 2005, tells that the Southern Music Heritage Museum plans are gaining more momentum. It says Don Gibson’s widow, Bobbi Gibson, and Earl Scruggs and his wife, Louise are thrilled with the proposal. Earl Scruggs and his wife and their career advisor have given a letter of intent to be on board with the Southern Music Heritage Museum. It states that Jim Allen and his group members have taken trips to Nashville recently to discuss the museum idea with Don Gibson’s widow. The article says the old courthouse is currently the home to the Cleveland County Historical Museum which has been temporarily closed so it can be refurbished.
On February 13, 2005, The Star published a two-page article about Earl Scruggs/Don Gibson Southern Heritage Music Center’s plans for using some of the space in the Cleveland County Historical Museum. The article tells that group members made their case to commissioners during the board’s planning retreat in January. Commissioners responded favorably. Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Hawkins said in a later interview he encourages them to keep moving forward. Cleveland County is so blessed with good people and a good location and if we can make it available for people to come and see our heritage, it would be great, he said.
On April 13, 2005, County Manager David Dear signed the check for the county to pay $1,500 to The Design Minds, Inc. of Lorton, Virginia for the initial design work for the Southern Music Heritage Museum. Lonny Schwartz, from The Design Minds, Inc., said he came to Shelby to meet with Jim Allen several times about the designs and ate at a local diner near the courthouse. He said Jim Allen, David Dear, and J.T. Scruggs all got copies of the plans.
In an April 21, 2005 letter County Manager David Dear responded to an April 15, 2005 letter from Betty J. Logan of Charlotte who inquired about the closed Cleveland County Historical Museum. Mr. Dear assured Ms. Logan that the museum would be reopened, but “we have no exact date as to when.”
The County powers were definitely on board with Jim Allen and his group for the Southern Music Heritage Museum. But when the decision was made by some members of Jim Allen’s group to honor Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson in separate buildings, the County Commissioners made a resolution to support the newly formed Destination Cleveland County.
All the while, the artifacts were still in the historical museum awaiting renovations to the building so it could be reopened. Money was not allocated by the County Commissioners to renovate the building until they agreed to give Destination Cleveland County $1.5 million to renovate it.
The County Commissioners did not bother to follow the legal channels of terminating the lease agreement with the Cleveland County Historical Museum which states that the lease may be terminated by one or both of the parties. Either party may terminate by giving the other party six (6) months’ written notice, or this lease may be terminated sooner by mutual consent in writing.
The County Commissioners gave Destination Cleveland County access to the artifacts that had been given unconditionally to the Cleveland County Historical Museum, Inc. and were the property of that museum. The County claimed them as abandoned in their building. The County has no paperwork to support this claim. The County Commissioners did not follow the legal procedure by notifying the Cleveland County Historical Museum, Inc., of their intention of claiming the artifacts if they were not removed from the premises of their building.
Jim Allen was the agent of the Cleveland County Historical Association, Inc. which was formed in 1965 and amended its name to the Cleveland County Historical Museum, Inc. in 1992, and he was still the agent at the time of his death in September 2012.
Did the County Commissioners commit grand theft by illegally claiming the property of the Cleveland County Historical Museum?
County Commissioners Vote Unanimously To Lease Courthouse To Destination Cleveland County For The Earl Scruggs Center
The County Commissioners’ vote is unanimous to lease the Historic Courthouse to Destination Cleveland County for the Earl Scruggs Center- Songs and Stories of the Carolina Foothills.
In their support of the Earl Scruggs Center, Commissioner Chair Mary Accor said the old museum was “just ugh!” Commissioner Ronnie Hawkins said the old museum was “horrible.” And “that is why the doors have been padlocked.” Commissioner Johnny Hutchins said, “Up until after lunch, I still had not decided which way to go.” However, at a Town Hall Meeting, he said “when we sign the lease,” not if we sign the lease, indicating that his mind was already made up.
DCC is not required to put up a bond or make a deposit, as is usually required in cases like this.
In an editorial on March 20, 2008, The Star takes a kinder and fairer approach to the citizens who opposed Destination Cleveland County, now that DCC has succeeded in getting the lease for the use of the Historic Courthouse for the Earl Scruggs Center.
Skip Foster agreed that the group opposing DCC’s plans brought up some good questions in the months leading up to the Commissioners vote and agreed that because of their heartfelt devotion to courthouse and Cleveland County’s history, the group acted out of passion and love for Cleveland County and its history, not out of malice.