The sale of the Rollins-Crigler building on Second Avenue North, Woody’s on the Water at the marina and the old Gilmer Inn site on Main Street have all made headlines in the last couple of years.
All of those share a surprising landlord: the city of Columbus, which also owns the strip mall adjacent to the municipal complex and several empty lots scattered throughout town.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage told The Dispatch that, although state law allows municipalities to “set aside and improve” property for “industrial and commercial purposes,” the city never set out to become a property owner.
The former Rollins-Crigler building on Second Avenue North, which was recently sold to Zachary’s owner Doug Pellum, was picked up deliberately in 2013, but not with any intent to flip it, Turnage said.
“The thinking at the time was that it would be breakout space for the Trotter Convention Center,” Turnage said. “But you know how accountants’ offices are. They are extraordinarily small, and so the building wasn’t conducive to that purpose.”
In the end the building sat vacant, but the parking lot was used for overflow from the Trotter. The building itself was used by the Columbus Police Department for its Halloween fundraiser at least once. Pellum bought it this year for an undisclosed amount.
Probably the most notorious site scooped up by the city was the Gilmer Inn, a well-known eyesore at 321 Main St. The city bought it for $425,000 in 2015.
“It was terribly run down and dilapidated and there was a lot of illicit behavior going on there,” Turnage said. “(Building Official Kenny Wiegel) used his camera to document the poor conditions that you could see from the exterior of the building. A lot of times doors were off the hinges and you could see ceiling tiles falling in and squalor.”
Then-Mayor Robert Smith negotiated the sale of the property with the owners, Turnage said.
The hotel was knocked down and the lot was repurposed as a green space, and it became a popular place for dog-walkers until Financial Concepts bought it in June 2021 for $270,000.
The Woody’s on the Water location at the Columbus Marina was donated to the city after sitting vacant for years, Turnage said. The sale, for a reported $300,000, is still pending.
While the city owns the strip mall adjacent to the municipal complex, it only houses two businesses: China Royal restaurant and Clippers, a barber shop, Turnage said. The rest of that complex is used for city offices, including the Columbus Crime Lab and Director of Planning and Community Development Director George Irby’s office.
China Royal leases two adjacent commercial spaces from the city, according to Chief Financial Officer James Brigham. The combined rent is $1,386 per month. Chief Operations Officer Jammie Garrett said the barber shop’s rent is $625 a month.
Otherwise, the only properties that the city owns that are not being actively used or not part of the Columbus Redevelopment Authority’s portfolio are about 15 lots scattered throughout town that were taken as part of the city’s dilapidated property program.
“We’ll tear down a house and do cleanup, and then we put a lien on the property,” Turnage explained. “If it’s not paid we send it to (Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews) and tell him to sell it in the same manner that he would a tax sale.”
If nobody buys, they are eventually taken by the state, Turnage said.
“It gets overgrown again and we send them a notice to cut their grass,” he said. “Rather than do anything they send us back a deed. … We’ve tried in the past to sell those at auction, and we have people bid but they don’t ever come through with the money.”
Director of Code Enforcement Sasha James confirmed Thursday the city was sitting on 15 empty lots as of right now.
Unlike Columbus, the City of Starkville owns no commercial property and very little non-municipal property otherwise.
“We own the library, but nothing that would translate into what Columbus did with buying the hotel and some other stuff and then, I guess, selling it to a private developer,” Mayor Lynn Spruill said. “We don’t have anything like that.”
In fact, city land ownership in Starkville is limited almost exclusively to industrial land and municipal property like the police department and City Hall.
“I can’t think of any property that we own that isn’t currently used for some sort of municipal purpose. Pretty much nothing. It’s certainly nothing in large quantities,” she said.
Spruill further explained that the city does own small amounts of land here and there — for example, over a decade ago, Starkville acquired a small sliver of property off of Dr. Douglas L. Conner Drive that they thought they might need for a pass through. It also owns land near North Montgomery Street that could potentially be developed into a small park.
When Nucor, a steel production company, left Starkville, the land was returned to the city, which is in the process of selling that land. On the rare occasion the city does find itself with land for sale, the revenue generated from that sale goes into the general fund.
“There’s a piece of property that we’re going to, as I mentioned, sell off of Highway 25. I’d like to use the proceeds from that property to pave the entry into Cornerstone (the baseball/softball complex under construction) because it’s one-time money,” Spruill said. “It’s not a sustainable, ongoing revenue stream. So you really can’t really do anything with it that requires an annual expense, like a pay raise.”