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Altered RCC letter raises questions about HELP Center

Who altered a Rappahannock Community College letter expressing support for the HELP Center project proposed for King George County?

What does the discovery of the altered letter mean for the future of the proposed $8.4 million project?


What does it mean to the HELP site plan under review by the King George Planning Commission as The Journal goes to press on June 11 which lists RCC as a major tenant?

And, if the project is not successfully completed by August of 2014, what will that cost King George taxpayers?

Those are just some of the questions being asked as a result of the appearance last week of a letter from RCC, dated March 30, 2012, supporting the HELP Center project. The 2012 letter is a duplicated and re-dated copy of a 2010 letter that was for one time use, according to RCC. (It shows the March 30, 2012 date on page one of the letter and March 30, 2010 on page 2).

The two-page letter being distributed is on Rappahannock Community College letterhead and is dated March 30, 2012 and signed by RCC President Elizabeth Crowther. It is identical to a letter written “To Whom It May Concern” on March 30, 2010 and signed by Dr. Crowther.

Both letters confirm RCC’s intention “to be a partner organization at the planned King George Help Center.” However, when contacted, Dr. Crowther said she was “astonished” by the appearance of the 2012 letter. “We did write a letter in 2010 in support of a specific grant proposal. That letter was intended for one time use.”

Crowther said she did not write the 2012 letter and RCC is no longer committed to renting space in the HELP Center project. The 2010 HELP Center grant application, which RCC supported, was not approved. Crowther said there had been no discussions about a second letter and, in fact, she has had no contact with Fronce Wardlaw, who heads the HELP Center project since 2010, until just recently.

County officials said they are puzzled about where the 2012 letter came from and its purpose. “We are aware of the allegation and the letter,” said King George County Attorney Eric Gregory. “But we don’t know the genesis of the letter.”

“We would like to know how the alleged letter was created and for what purpose. We are very concerned about it. This is a serious allegation,” Gregory said.

Dahlgren Supervisor Ruby Brabo said she was given the letter on May 6 by Wardlaw, apparently as an effort to show support for the project. In that light, Brabo gave copies to The Journal and to Eric Gregory. In response to a question, Brabo said she did not know who altered the letter, but she appeared surprised to learn that it was not genuine.

Wardlaw said she gave Brabo the 2012 letter. “Whether the change in the letter originated with me or not is irrelevant,” she said.

“Obviously it was in error. I will take full responsibility. I will not incriminate anyone else.”

Wardlaw said she would “rather not comment” on what RCC’s Crowther said in raising questions about the letter’s authenticity. Wardlaw said, however, “I owe an apology to Ruby Brabo.” Brabo has been one of three consistent supporters of the project on the Board of Supervisors, along with Cedell Brooks and John LoBuglio. Dale Sisson and Joe Grzeika voted against giving county acreage to the private developer and also against extending the deadline for commencement of construction from Feb. 28, 2012 to Aug. 1, 2012. That is defined as “at least the pouring of all footers.” They both have said they respect Wardlaw’s vision, but have been skeptical with few facts coming from her.

Brabo voted for the project and she had posted the  HELP Center Operations Plan on her website.  The fact  that she pulled this item supporting the project from her website late last week would apparently indicate she is reevaluating her position.

The Operations Plan, which is undated but has an electronic fingerprint “created date” of March 30, 2010, was distributed by Wardlaw in 2012 and claims RCC will be renting up to one third of the  space in the HELP Center, indicates incorrect stale information about RCC’s involvement in the project was being circulated in other documents in  addition to the altered letter.

When asked about the 19-page Operations Plan, which Brabo said  Wardlaw gave her last year, Wardlaw said, “I don’t know what document you are talking about.  I am not going to comment.” That operations plan was part of a 2010 request made by Wardlaw for CDBG grant funds which was turned down.

Despite the complexities of the project, the exposure of federal,  state and local taxpayers, and the required reporting requirements, some county officials said it has been difficult to get a clear picture of the HELP Center’s finances.  King George Director of Social Services Dave Coman, who is the treasurer of the HELP project, did not return repeated phone calls.

Although controversial, Wardlaw has been successful in most of her efforts for Project FAITH, the non-profit she helped found 13 years ago to provide affordable housing for low-income, elderly and disabled King George residents.

FAITH stands for Facilitating Access to IndependenT Housing for persons with disabilities and elder individuals.

Using state and federal grants, tax credits and loans from housing agencies, Project FAITH has spent almost $20 million to become one of the most successful affordable housing projects in the region, building Angelwood, Angelwood II and Angel Court to provide housing assistance to those who need it.

Wardlaw, 50, who is executive Director of Project FAITH, is also an American Airlines flight attendant and a mother of two children. She received a leadership award in 2010 from the Virginia Housing Coalition, which praised her for “forging the key partnerships needed to meet the housing needs of working families in King George.”

Whether she has overreached in her efforts to build and occupy the HELP Center remains to be seen.   County officials and officials at RCC indicated they were embarrassed and angry about the altered letter.

The 42,000 square-foot HELP center is scheduled to cost $8.4 million.  It is to be built on 5.5 acres of prime real estate located on the north side of Route 3, just across from the King George County Sheriff’s Office.  The county agreed to give the real estate to the HELP Center project in May of 2012 after Wardlaw signed a performance agreement.

The agreement states that the Help Center must be completed by Aug. 31, 2014, or the real estate will revert to King George County.  Unfortunately, the reversion clause also provides that county taxpayers will be forced to pick-up the costs of any liens, loans, unfulfilled grants and other liabilities that have been incurred by the project by that time.

Other than providing the land and staff time, the county will not provide any actual funding to the project. But this past February, Wardlaw distributed a multi-page document to Supervisors at a meeting and explained some of her sources of funding for the project. Wardlaw said that $850,000 listed as ‘local land loan’ has been in place since last July. Wardlaw has not yet revealed any other actual liabilities, but in February she said a $4,000,000 bank loan was being sought and that $1,720,000 would be obtained from New Market Tax Credits. The current CDBG application is for $700,000 to go toward infrastructure costs for the Free Clinic section, though that is not assured.

Currently the HELP Center site plan is awaiting site plan approval from  the King George Planning Commission as The Journal goes to press. The site plan indicates that the HELP center will have both RCC and the State Health Department as tenants, both of which have made other plans. The Health Department has signed a 10-year lease for space in the Food Lion Shopping center on Route 3.

Questions as to who will be the tenants in the HELP center may be asked at the Planning Commission meeting.

 

Richard Leggitt

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