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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Jimmy Hopkins lawyers up as the Bank of America building story gets messier

On this episode, we look at the purchase of the former Bank of America building by New Hanover County on behalf of Cape Fear Community College — and the intertwined story of the CFCC Trustee Jimmy Hopkins’ dismissal by the county chair, after Hopkins’ disagreed with CFCC President Jim Morton about the BoA building purchase. Simple, right?

Editor's note: Several hours after we recorded this podcast, Jimmy Hopkins confirmed that he had retained legal counsel. So, while we don't discuss that much in the podcast, there are details below.

On Thursday, the Rountree Losee law firm notified New Hanover County that they were representing Hopkins — and put county officials on notice, outlining the statutory case that County Chair Julia Olson-Boseman had overstepped both county policy andstate law in removing Hopkins (you can read the notice, below). CFCC's Board Chair William "Bill" Cherry and the Board of Commissioners were carbon-copied in the notice, as well.

The letter from Hopkins suggested the county take the policy the September 26 ‘removal letter’ from Olson-Boseman was “null, void and of no effect” — and notes that Hopkins reserves the right to take legal action.

The county confirmed the receipt of the letter.

"It will be reviewed by the County Attorney’s Office. As this is now pending litigation, no additional comment from the county will be made at this time," a county spokesperson replied.

This is only the latest question about whether the county exceeded its authority in removing Hopkins.

While the county has stood by Olson-Boseman’s decision, saying Hopkins had unexcused absences, the college appears to have no method for tracking excused versus unexcused absences — and Hopkins claims he gave proper notice any time he missed a meeting.

CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk, as well as State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who sits on the state community college board, both say the move was illegitimate.

Hopkins was removed roughly two weeks after getting into what he described as a disagreement with CFCC President Jim Morton. Hopkins says they argued about CFCC’s request to the county to purchase the former Bank of America building in order to significantly expand the college’s nursing program — a major facilities decision about which Hopkins, chair of the Board of Trustees facilities committee, had been kept in the dark.

But Hopkins' abrupt and potentially retaliatory removal is only part of the story.

The building purchase which sparked Hopkins’ argument with Morton has since been unanimously approved by county commissioners for debt-financing, with some important caveats.

The nearly $12-million deal comes with questions — like how much is the building worth? (The county hasn’t yet performed an appraisal.) There’s also the issues of how the expansion will work, how it will be funded, how it will recruit, and how it will work with UNCW’s nursing program and Novant to advance and employ nursing students. It also comes with strings, at least $14 million that the county will have to add to the loan in order to renovate and upfit an empty office building into laboratory and classroom space.

And those caveats? One is due diligence, which could give the county to answer the appraisal question. Another is approval by the LGC — the Local Government Commission, the wing of the State Treasure’s office, headed up by Treasurer Folwell.

And that, in a way, brings the story full circle to Folwell — who in addition to the calling for the county to rescind Hopkins’ dismissal has also criticized, and effectively quashed, two other New Hanover County real estate deals, namely Project Grace, and the Government Center redevelopment. The latter featured the same developer, Brian Eckel, who put the Bank of America building under contract in August.

Eckel brings support, and $2 million, from Novant and his hope seems to be that he can kickstart government stakeholders — CFCC, New Hanover County, UNCW, and even the state — into action to address a crisis that few can dispute is reaching a dire level: the nationwide nursing shortage.

But it remains to be seen if that plan will win over Folwell, who has become increasingly critical, and skeptical, of New Hanover County’s fiduciary responsibility and transparency.

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Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.