Bell casts blame for Teacher Village failure

WINNSBORO – Although a proposed deal with a North Carolina hedge fund to build a “Teacher Village” appears dead, Fairfield County Council hopes the proposed subdivision catering to teachers can still be built. 

At Monday night’s council meeting, several council members said the project might find success with another developer.

Gorelick Brothers Capital had planned to invest $3.6 million to build the subdivision in exchange for a seven-year tax abatement of up to $600,000. But the hedge fund pulled out when it and the county couldn’t agree on an indemnity clause the county wanted in the deal. 

“I’m saddened the Gorelick project fell through,” Council Chairman Neil Robinson said. “You don’t just lay down on the ground, you get back up on the horse and ride again. Gorelick isn’t the only developer we can depend on.”

While several council members expressed optimism about finding another developer to revive the project, one council member blamed the media for the Teacher Village deal falling through. 

Bell accuses media

Councilman Moses Bell took issue with The Voice’s reporting of an email from Gorelick that spelled out the hedge fund’s objections to the indemnity clause.

A Gorelick representative authored the email on Aug. 30.

The Voice obtained the email, addressed to Fairfield School’s Superintendent Dr. J. R. Green and the district’s Foundation president Sue Rex, on Sept. 13, or about two weeks after its origination. It had been shared as information to multiple county officials according to Rex. The Voice obtained the email in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“The puzzling thing to me was a letter shared with the press and not shared with me and some members of the council knowing we were in negotiations,” Bell said. “How did [The Voice] know the letter was there and its contents?”

Rex told The Voice in an interview last week that Gorelick’s objections have been common knowledge for some time.

Rex said in a statement that the email “that was reported in the press, was shared on the day it was received from investors, August 30th, with both the County Manager and the County Council Chair.”

The email was not labeled confidential, though Bell said he considered the email sensitive and part of ongoing negotiations.

Developer was not all in

Councilman Clarence Gilbert said Monday night that the county shouldn’t be blamed, because it was the developer who pulled out.

“The developer was not all in,” Gilbert said. “In every major deal if there are differences, you meet and talk about those differences. Gorelick wouldn’t meet with us. So those of you accusing council of sabotaging this project, let’s get our facts together. We did everything we could to make this project work. The only thing we refused to do was to sign a blank check that may or may not have caused the county problems in the future.” Gilbert said. “If you believe strongly in something, and it didn’t work out, don’t blame someone else because it didn’t work out the way you thought it did. If Plan A doesn’t work, find a Plan B.”

Indemnification not new

Indemnification has not been new in the Gorelick discussions. 

Fairfield County has been publicly pushing for an indemnity clause since at least November 2018, when former Council Chairman Billy Smith raised the issue at a joint county-school board meeting. 

The issue arose again two weeks ago, at the Sept. 9 council meeting, when County Administrator Jason Taylor said Gorelick did not support the indemnification clause, but that indemnification clauses protecting the county are common to any contract the county enters into.

The county is a co-defendant in a similar multi-county business park lawsuit filed over a student housing project in downtown Columbia. The county is incurring no legal cost on the lawsuit, however, because it has an indemnification clause in the deal that protects the county from liability. County leaders feared a similar suit could arise from the Teacher Village. For that reason, county officials sought similar protection with Gorelick.

County Attorney Tommy Morgan said at a recent council meeting that legal bills stemming from any Teacher Village litigation could cost “six figures” without an indemnification agreement.

Gorelick opposed indemnification, saying that it was already bearing the brunt of the risk. The hedge fund also wanted Fairfield County to be “invested” in the Teacher Village. 

“If they [the county] believe in this project, they should be willing to bear some of the risk,” Gorelick stated in an email obtained by The Voice. “If we are forced to bear the cost of indemnification the risk-reward equation is too negatively skewed for us to continue.”

Rex, Green respond to Pauley

In her statement, Rex said that Gorelick’s withdrawal was a serious blow to Fairfield County. 

Rex and Green also responded to past comments from Councilman Douglas Pauley, who’s previously questioned the Teacher Village.

On Sept. 9, Pauley read a prepared statement in which he said, “other parties involved have been unwilling to help the county mitigate and manage its associated risk.”

In a subsequent statement to The Voice, Pauley was even more blunt.

“At best, it [the email from Gorelick confirms our concerns. At worst, it exposes those we considered partners trying to pull the wool over our eyes and over our citizen’s eyes, all for public risk and personal gain,” the statement said. “If Council is the least bit sane, this will end the circus act.”

On Monday night, Green responded to Pauley’s remarks, claiming they were directed at him, although Pauley did not mention Green in his remarks.

“I generally don’t comment on those things unless they assassinate my character or question my integrity, accuse me of being duplicitous,” Green said. “When those things occur, I am compelled to address them.”