HAMLET — County Manager Bryan Land and Planning Director Tracy Parris escorted potential renters through a warehouse belonging to the McLaurin Vocational Center on Wednesday.
Land, recognizing a reporter in the street, waved, chuckled and hustled the men inside, telling the reporter jovially that she could not come in and brushing off questions about the status of the donation to the county of 21 parcels belonging to the center.
After the showing, the visiting men — and one other already inside — departed separately, leaving Land and Parris to lock up. With the reporter still outside the front entrance, Land and Parris went back inside the front door, left by another door, got into their car and headed back toward Rockingham.
Later Wednesday, Land refused an email request for an interview, referring all questions to Alden Webb, the attorney for the McLaurin Center. Neither Webb nor Parris could not be reached for comment.
During a March 6 meeting, Land told county commissioners that the McLaurin Center intended to donate to the county all of its property, including eight warehouses. He called the donation “a great opportunity” and said it was contingent on the approval of the center’s board of directors and County Attorney Stephan Futrell.
At that time, the center still was trying to renew its license as a training center for mentally and physically challenged adults, and was awaiting inspectors from the Division of Health Service Regulation.
That no longer is the case.
A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Wednesday that the center would not seek to renew its state license, meaning it must close. The center has been closed to clients “temporarily” since Feb. 9 because it did not file its relicensing paperwork on time.
When state inspectors asked last week to reschedule an inspection after the center filed its paperwork at the end of February, spokesmen for the center said they were “no longer interested in pursuing licensure,” a DHHS spokesman said Wednesday.
Director Holleigh McLaurin has said that center canceled an earlier inspection because potential buyers were looking at property the center wanted to sell. Since then, she has not returned reporters’ telephone calls, and her cellphone mailbox has remained full.
Many former clients of the center have found placements with providers coordinated by the Sandhills Center, to whose network the McLaurin Center belonged. The network includes providers in Richmond and Anson counties but not Scotland County, which the McLaurin Center also served.
On Wednesday, Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Anthony Ward said the Sandhills Center also could help those who had not sought new placements earlier because they hoped the McLaurin Center would reopen.
Ward said he had yet to hear anything from the McLaurin Center administration.
Also Wednesday, 81-year-old volunteer Roman Chavis worked in another McLaurin Center warehouse, packing meals for Backpack Pals, which provides food for needy students when they go home on the weekend.
For 10 years, the McLaurin Center has “graced” the program with warehouse space in which it can store and process its cheese crackers, instant oatmeal and soups, said Kim Lindsey, who writes grants and handles public relations for the program.
“We don’t have an answer to the question” of whether the program can keep using the warehouse, Lindsey said, although a county official told project founder Pastor Steve Crews of the Church of God of Prophecy in Hamlet that the program “would be part of our conversation” about how the donated property would be used.
On Tuesday, Diane Allen, mother of McLaurin Center client Corey Hester, said family members were told to remove any personal items from the center last Friday but were not allowed inside the center themselves. Hester, who has been a client for about 20 years, said he had left behind too many items to make a list for staff to retrieve, including movies and a popcorn machine.
Late Tuesday, Allen said she and Hester would be allowed to retrieve their belongings later this week.
The McLaurin Center, like all nonprofit 501(c)(3) agencies, filed incorporation papers with the office of the N.C. Secretary of State when it intended to open more than 50 years ago.
According to papers on file with that office, the center was established in February 1967, under the name Richmond Skills Inc. It changed its name to the McLaurin Vocational Training Center Inc. in September 1969.
The center’s articles of incorporation state that the agency will provide job-training “services and facilities” for “handicapped persons,” as well as a workshop providing training leading to employment.
Article 7 of the incorporation papers says that if the center were to dissolve, the assets left after bills had been paid must be “be distributed to any association … organized for purposes” of vocational training for the handicapped. Such a clause is legally binding, a spokesman for the office said.
Land has said he assumed the center would have to dissolve its 501(c)(3) status before its property could be donated to a government entity, although he made it clear he wasn’t a legal authority.
The center had not requested dissolution as its nonprofit status as of last week. The secretary of state’s office did not return a request for information Wednesday.
Staff writer Gavin Stone contributed to this report. Reach reporter Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]