Free Lance-Star reporter Chelyen Davis covers Virginia government.
Slavery museum sale postponed, private offer to buy land made
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A private buyer has offered $1.5 million for the Central Park land now owned by the U.S. National Slavery museum.
But an attorney for the debt-ridden museum’s biggest creditor, Pei Partnership Architects, wasn’t authorized to negotiate a sale price Tuesday when he learned of the offer.
As a result, Spotsylvania Circuit Court Judge Joseph Ellis on Tuesday gave the parties thirty days to negotiate a possible private sale of the land, before he decides whether to authorize a public auction.
The museum, founded by former Gov. Doug Wilder, owes the city of Fredericksburg more than $350,000 in unpaid taxes, which has allowed the city to move to auction off the land to recoup the debt.
The museum also owes Pei Partnership Architects more than $6 million in unpaid fees and interest.
Attorneys for all three groups were in court Tuesday for a hearing on whether to move forward with sale of the land. The museum, represented by Del. Joe Morrissey, objects to the sale and the valuation of the land by a commissioner of chancery, and this week re-filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that the city has assessed the tax value of the land too high.
Pei objects to the valuation of the land because the commissioner’s report didn’t definitively decide whether restrictions on the land’s use are enforceable. Pei has argued they shouldn’t be and that they reduce the land’s value.
The city’s attorney, John Rife of Taxing Authority Consulting Services, told Ellis he had learned late Monday night of the private offer, which is apparently on behalf of the Hagerstown Suns baseball team.
Jackie Solomon, chief financial officer of Rosner Auto Group, showed attorneys a check. She declined to tell reporters whether it was written by Rosner — which has announced its intention to invest in the baseball team — or by another party.
Rife told Ellis that a private sale would “provide for a quicker relief” to the city and to Pei, and would prevent Wilder’s museum from re-filing for bankruptcy.
The museum filed for bankruptcy almost two years ago, but the case ended a year ago with promises by the museum’s then-attorney that a private donor was prepared to pay the museum’s tax debt within days.
No such payment was ever made.
The bankruptcy judge ruled that the museum could not file for bankruptcy again for a year. That year expires this week.
Pei attorney Paul Prados said his company is “willing to talk” to the private buyer, but pointed out that the company’s lien against the museum property is worth about $6.5 million. He said Pei understands they won’t get that full amount, but suggested the land should be worth more than the $1.5 million on offer.
Morrissey, representing the museum, said the museum’s leadership is prepared now to repay about $104,933 of its tax debt, a figure Morrissey suggested would represent the amount of tax debt that is undisputed in the museum’s separate lawsuit against the city over the assessment.
Rife said after the court hearing that the city’s position is that the museum would have to pay the full amount owed, about $350,000, to stop the city’s efforts to sell the property.
Ellis scheduled the next hearing in the case — one in which he’ll decide whether to move forward with auctioning the land or not — for Sept. 25.
But he suggested that negotiations for a private sale move forward.
“Anything you can negotiate is usually better than anything you can litigate,” Ellis said. “It is better that you control your own futures and those of your clients.”