CHESTER -- The fate of an old Great Falls mill has divided Chester County leaders, and some say the small town's revitalization depends on who buys the property.
Two groups want to purchase the Republic Mill No. 2, the only one of the town's three large textile plants that's completely standing. The textile industry has been gone for years, and local leaders don't see other industries coming to this community of some 2,200 residents in the southeastern part of the county.
Most local officials say they hope a development group with plans to build a nearly $20 million hotel and senior living center in the mill buys the site.
Deal already struck?
But there's a problem. The county commission selling the property claims it has already made a deal with another group that wants to put a plastics recycling business there, spending about $2 million.
Since 2000, the mill has been controlled by the county's Forfeited Land Commission, a group of four elected officials who oversee land and buildings no one typically wants. The commission acquires property when the taxes aren't paid and the lots aren't bought during tax sales.
Jack Kindle, county treasurer and chairman of the FLC, said commission members signed an agreement in 2006 authorizing the commission's attorney to transfer the deed of the property to Virginia businessman Don Saulsgiver, who plans to build a plastics recycling business in the old mill. Saulsgiver later signed the transfer paperwork, too.
He agreed to pay the property's back taxes, nearly $58,000.
Kindle said the commission's attorney believes the documentation constitutes a binding agreement, even though no money was exchanged when the papers were signed. Payment was delayed, Kindle said, because some environmental tests needed to be performed on the property.
But the Chester County Council doesn't want the commission to sell the mill to Saulsgiver, and some leaders have questions about him.
Council members base some of their suspicions on the report of a private investigator hired by a Chester businesswoman who's opposed to the first group getting the mill.
The investigator tracked the criminal and financial records of Saulsgiver and his brother, Jay, both of whom came to a County Council meeting last month to discuss plans for the property.
When contacted by The Herald, Jay Saulsgiver referred questions to Don, who could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts over three days.
Both brothers have filed for bankruptcy in the past, according to the investigator's report. Jay Saulsgiver was sentenced to a year in federal prison in 1994, after a conviction for making false claims to the government, the report states.
The information from the investigator emboldened the County Council's already unanimous stance that the FLC shouldn't sell the mill to Saulsgiver.
"If it doesn't look that good and smell that good, they're not gonna shove it down my throat," said County Councilman Archie Lucas, who represents the Great Falls area. "I'm not gonna eat it."
Great Falls residents strongly support the second buyer, Lucas said, and people are even talking about picketing to show their opposition to the FLC's decision to sell to Saulsgiver. As of Friday, about 65 residents had signed a petition asking the commission to reverse its decision.
One common fear among locals stems from Saulsgiver's plans to open a plastics business, the same kind of facility that burned in the massive fire at the J.P. Stevens Mill No. 3 in 2006. The smoke from that fire contained hydrochloric acid. Shifting winds blew the smoke in every direction and caused evacuations of more than half the town.
Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the fire.
"That's a no-no in Great Falls right now," Lucas said of opening a plastics recycling business. Saulsgiver also plans to refurbish antique furniture and vintage cars.
Other Great Falls leaders want the commission to rescind its vote and go with the hotel group.
"We're not going to have any big industry move in here anytime soon," said Great Falls Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes. "We have our future built on nature-based tourism. ... This one fits a lot more in with that."
"It could change our direction," said Glinda Coleman, executive director of the Great Falls Home Town Association, the nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the town. "Everything in this proposal is the things that we would love to see."
The hotel idea comes from Bob and Nancy Harllee, managing partners of a development group that formed to work on the mill project.
The Harllees, who are in the process of moving from Georgia to Camden, want to convert the old mill into a destination that includes more than 100 senior living units, 38 hotel suites, a fitness center, day spa, outdoor amphitheater and rooftop pool. The couple claims to have spent more than 25 years in real estate management and development.
Bob Harllee said the project can succeed for a variety of reasons, including the design of Great Falls' master plan, which he said fits perfectly with his vision for the mill.
Harllee said his research indicates the senior living units could be filled locally, meaning the hotel could operate with lower rates and occupancy.
Harllee has been aggressively pursuing the mill for several months, even sending a sales agreement and a check for $6,000 to Kindle's office in April. Kindle voided the check and sent a letter to Harllee saying he should stop any correspondence with the commission.
"They didn't want to take 'no' for an answer," Kindle said of Harllee's group. "They have continued a public awareness program -- I guess you could call it."
The Harllees shared their plans in a meeting with the County Council and with a group of about 65 people last week at a public presentation in Great Falls.
Harllee said his attorneys have told him the commission doesn't have a binding contract with Saulsgiver because no money has been exchanged.
The commission should go with the project that's best for the county, he said, not the one that arrives first. Harllee first spoke with the commission about the mill several months ago.
"We're talking about putting a program in place that could be a true blessing to the city of Great Falls," he said. "We're not talking about us winning or their losing. What we're talking about is Great Falls winning or losing."
The mounting public pressure has left Kindle in an uncomfortable position.
"I'm in a lose-lose situation," he said. "If I stay true to our contract, stay true to my word, I'm going to have the people in Great Falls ... up in arms. They want this new purchaser. If I break contract, I leave the county open to a breach of contract suit, which we probably have a 90 percent chance of losing. And plus the fact that I would have broken my trust. And if I can't be trusted on that, I can't be trusted on anything else and I don't deserve to be a county official."
Despite Kindle's plight, some leaders say he should make what they consider the better choice for the county and move on.
"Let's face it," Lucas said. "It takes a real man to know when you have made a boo-boo."
On Friday, Kindle tried to resolve the situation by faxing Don Saulsgiver the private investigator's report about him and his brother. Because of the local opposition, if Saulsgiver chooses to opt out of his agreement to buy the mill, Kindle said the commission "would probably be very willing to do that."
"Even if he got it and he came into the area," Kindle said, "this man's going to have a difficult time doing business." Kindle said he's asking Saulsgiver to consider the offer over the weekend.