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This is the former Watauga High School, located off N.C. 105 in Boone. File photo

Originally published: 2012-10-23 19:27:14
Last modified: 2012-10-23 19:27:14

Quiet deals precede old WHS offer

With a unanimous vote last week, Watauga County residents observed the county move closer than it ever has before to selling the former high school property.

What the public did not see was months of legwork by local realtors, multiple meetings between developers and one or two commissioners, and maneuvering by the county attorney to get contracts in line with state statutes.

With so much of the process occurring behind the scenes, it can be difficult to follow the process and the players that brought Watauga County to this phase.

Years before Rick Miller, the buyer’s agent for the accepted offer, was bringing offers before the board, he was a client of Chairman Nathan Miller’s father, attorney Paul Miller. Now, he primarily uses the law firm that includes Commissioner Jim Deal for his business, he said.

Both commissioners said in interviews that while they are excited by the position the county is now in, neither has anything to gain because of those prior or existing connections to the buyer’s agent.
“I ain’t making any money off this, but I have spent countless hours trying to get us to this point,” Nathan Miller said.

Anatomy of a sale
Since he joined the Board of Commissioners in 2010, Nathan Miller said he has been accepting calls and sitting down with prospective buyers about the former high school property.

On some occasions, the county manager, the development company and one or two commissioners — just shy of quorum, which would require an announced, open meeting — would meet in person to discuss and negotiate.

“Some people wanted to kick the tires, so we allowed them to kick the tires,” Nathan Miller said.
Sometimes those conversations yielded offers; sometimes they didn’t, he said.

Deal, who was chairman of the commissioners from 2004 to 2010, said the process was similar when he was at the helm.

Deal said he was involved in numerous meetings between 2006, when the county decided to purchase land for a new high school, and 2008, when the economy dragged and interest levels dropped.

Until February 2008, the property was deeded to the Watauga County Board of Education, so the school board and its attorney, Paul Miller, were also part of the discussion, Deal said.

“On some occasions, we actually had some members of the (Boone) Planning and Inspections department come to the meetings,” Deal said, adding that feedback from that staff helped developers anticipate potential hurdles.

Such meetings were valuable for a number of reasons, including assessing whether the potential buyers were qualified and able to complete their projects, Deal said. Some interest over the years came from companies interested not in developing the land but in tying it up while seeing if they had money to do the project or finding someone else to buy it, Deal said.

Campus Crest comes calling
So it wasn’t unusual in late August or early September when Rick Miller of Miller Properties in Boone called with word that he might have a client interested in the 74-acre property, Nathan Miller said.

The two talked about agreement terms and the dollar figure, and Rick Miller assured the chairman that this would be a bigger number than the $10 million Rick Miller himself offered last year, Nathan Miller said.

“We worked out certain terms, but it’s always up for the five-member vote,” Nathan Miller said.

The $15 million offer from Campus Crest Development and Rick Miller then went before the full board Oct. 2, along with a second offer from Place Acquisition and agent Tim Hagaman for $15.5 million.

The board accepted neither offer, asking that they return with offers of $16.5 million and up.

During the interim, County Attorney Stacy “Four” Eggers worked with the offers to get them into a standard format, one that included statutory requirements such as a 5 percent earnest money deposit and making the county the escrow agent.

When Campus Crest representatives returned with a $17 million offer Oct. 16, they had new competition from Sanctuary Management, a Georgia development company. As the meeting continued the following morning, both companies presented their best offers.

Campus Crest came back at $18 million — netting the county $17.1 million after commission — and Sanctuary Management at $16.8 million with no commission. The board unanimously accepted the Campus Crest proposal.

Nathan Miller was especially anxious to accept the Campus Crest offer — even before reading the Sanctuary Management offer Oct. 16.

“I didn’t want to let a buyer walk away and let a deal walk away, and so that’s why I was pushing it,” he said.

Small-town ties
Despite his doggedness in accepting the offer from Rick Miller, Nathan Miller said he had no previous relationship with him. The two are not related, Nathan Miller said.

In fact, Nathan Miller said he had not met Rick Miller before Miller Properties made an offer on the property in 2011.

Nathan Miller’s law firm, Miller and Johnson, did have interactions with Rick Miller in the past, though. Until 1997, Paul Miller was the registered agent for Miller Properties, according to annual reports filed with the N.C. Secretary of State.

A registered agent is the person authorized to send and receive legal correspondence on behalf of a business.

“Rick Miller is not my client; he’s never been my client,” Nathan Miller said, adding that he was still in high school in 1997. “He might have been my dad’s client back in 1997 or prior, but I’ve never represented him.”

Nathan Miller stressed that he, his family and his firm would not receive any special benefits from working with Rick Miller on this sale.

“I have no monetary interest whatsoever in this,” Nathan Miller said. “I get nothing other than knowing that I’ve sold it, and getting the taxpayers the most bang for their buck.”

Rick Miller said in an email that he occasionally used Paul Miller when the firm of Miller and Moseley existed but that he had “no history” with Nathan Miller either personally or professionally.

“Since the dissolving of Miller and Moseley, I have primarily used Deal, Moseley and Smith LLP,” he said.

Deal said Friday he personally has never represented Rick Miller and that his firm has not represented him in this transaction, either.

“Right now, my office has not been involved with these people at all,” Deal said, referring to Campus Crest and Rick Miller.

Deal said he was pleased to see the sale moving forward and hoped that the commissioners would think long-term if and when the sale is finalized, which will happen after he ends his term on the Board of Commissioners this winter.

Rick Miller said he would be surprised if anyone had an issue with the sale of the former high school for $18 million, considering the state of the economy and the fact that the offer exceeds appraisals conducted on the property.

“This is a great opportunity for Watauga County because it gives the county an opportunity to reduce debt and allows the property to be taxed again,” he said in an email. “This project also has the potential to help our unemployment rate and spur our local economy.”