Peerless Mill owner Les Coffey showed representatives of RDC Inc., the lien-holders on the property, around the 28-acre site Wednesday morning in defense of his decision to demolish the complex.
An emergency injunction was filed against Coffey Tuesday by RDC attorney Phil Whitaker, who was present on the tour. Coffey showed off many of the repairs he has made to various parts of the old mill property in Rossville during the last few years, as well as many of the areas he has not touched, asking Whitaker and the other represen-tatives why the lien-holders have suddenly taken interest in the property, and on what grounds he is being asked to halt the demolition.
“We’ve been trying to clean up a disaster that the sale of this property created,” said Coffey. “And now they have a problem with it. That’s really the crux of it.”
Coffey was refering to a stipulation in the sale of the property that requires the new owner to maintain the con-dition of the old mill complex.
“Any reasonable person would believe that if it wasn’t in perfect condition at the time of sale, it falls on a secu-rity deed which says to keep it in good condition,” said Coffey. “It’s just not even practical because it wasn’t in good condition when it was bought. So in essence, the security deed was in default from the point I signed it, because that was not happening from the very beginning. So why now all of a sudden does the creditor decide that they want to enforce the clauses of the security agreement that was in default from day one?”
Coffey pointed out proof here and there among the derelict buildings that he has worked hard to improve the condition of the site, bit by bit over the last three years. He has renovated, at a cost of $250,000, an open 4000-sqare apartment with bright natural lighting and great potential.
“As you can see, the lien-holder didn’t have a problem with us spending a quarter-of-a-million dollars because it was an investment.”
Furthermore, Coffey said, he has drawn in 15 businesses with 75 total employees among them, working in reno-vated offices and warehouses throughout the property. He has repaired walls, torn down walls, fixed flooring and generally made improvements to make certain parts of the mill suitable for light industrial workspaces, he said.
“As you can see, we’ve renovated these offices,” Coffey said as he led the tour through a narrow but bright set of modern offices, “but of course the lien-holder didn’t have a problem with that.”
“The security deed states that we cannot make any improvements or alterations without the lien-holder’s con-sent, but it also says that we’re to keep the property in good repair. So, I don’t know. I mean, they sold it to us in this condition.”
In addition to his own scrap metal business, which operates near the back of the mill by the train tracks and which he plans to expand once the Peerless site is demolished, the property houses a flooring manufacturer, a spe-cialty wrought-iron gate-making business, a submarine-generator manufacturing operation and a waste plastic re-cycling company, among others.
“These are real businesses that make real products that create real jobs,” said Coffey. He said he had hoped to bring in even more businesses, but feels stymied by RDC and by the city of Rossville.
“We had a prospective tenant last week, wanting to rent a substantial amount of space,” Coffey said Tuesday. “They came back and said, ‘We are not going to rent it because we've heard that the city is trying to shut you down.’” Coffey also alleges the city would not give that client a business license.
According to Coffey, the lien-holders and city officials are suddenly objecting to any changes he wants to make to the property. He said this is a completely unreasonable demand, especially as he is charged, by deed, with main-taining the condition of the property, and by conscience, with improving it.
“If you have to go back to the lien-holder to get permission to make any changes or modifications, you’d be talk-ing to them every day,” he said, adding that that’s just not how businesses work, or how owners and lien-holders are supposed to interact.
Coffey originally bought the Peerless property from Frank Hutcheson more than three years ago. He noted that there were no such squabbles over changes to the property with the elder of the Hutcheson clan.
“The agreement with Frank Hutcheson, who is dead now, was that the building to them had no value and he didn’t care what we did with the building. It was clearly understood, do not get me wrong, that there were going to be issues here to clear up, that there was a lot of work to be done here. We’re not denying that. What they did repre-sent was that there was no pollutants here. And they represented that no one else had an interest in the property, which obviously… was just not the case. That’s the crux of the problem. What it really boils down to is the city and the lien-holder are now in a mess because they’ve been caught talking out of both sides of their mouth. And here we are.”
Hidden dangers and what got left behind
Along the tour Wednesday morning, Coffey pointed out, seemingly around every corner, bits of dangerous footing here, broken glass there and, most alarmingly, asbestos and mold running rampant around the mill’s derelict build-ings.
Coffey maintained that when he bought the property, it was promised to him by the former owners that there were no pollutants or hazardous particles on site.
“It is fraud, because they represented certain things to us in the sale that’s in the security deed, the warranty deed and the owner’s affidavit, and now those things are not the case,” said Coffey. “It is not criminal fraud, but it’s definitely a civil fraud, because they made certain representations in the sale, such as that the place had no pollut-ants, for one.”
Coffey walked the RDC representatives through many areas of the Peerless Mill site that remained completely untouched by him since the property was bought. In numerous areas of the mill, the only work he has done is to clean out the buildings as much as possible. He said that in many of the buildings, the trash left behind by RDC, which Coffey cleaned out, was piled up to the ceilings.
He also commented heavily on the run-down state of the place, the toxic debris and the number of unmarked, po-tentially hazardous barrels that were left behind along with the piles of trash and detritus. Coffey noted that un-marked barrels of that nature must be disposed of, rather expensively, as hazardous waste. He has done so to as many as he can already, at his own expense, he said.
“As you can see,” said Coffey, “this damage didn’t happen, these things didn’t happen, in the last three years. And now all of a sudden after fighting with the city for three and a half years to try and do something, we want to clean it up and make a profit, and of course everybody wants to stop us. I really don’t know what else that the city, the government agencies and the lien-holders want us to do.”
Coffey asked one of the RDC representatives present to comment on the state of the property, and how it has or has not changed since the sale was made three years ago.
“Don, has this area changed any since it was sold?...This area right here, this pathway – has it changed?” asked Coffey, pointing at the decrepit, dangerous-looking hallway down which he was now leading the tour group.
“No,” replied the representative.
“Same way, paint peeling and everything, right?” asked Coffey.
“Probably a little more than it was,” was the reply.
“So now the EPA is saying this is lead-based paint and you’re saying RDC sold this to us with lead-based paint?
“No, I don’t know,” said the representative.
“I just want to get the record straight, that’s all,” said Coffey. “As you can see, these windows surely didn’t get knocked out and fall out in the last three years,” said Coffey. “The asbestos just didn’t show up in the last three years.”
In addition to the mysterious barrels and piles of trash, Coffey pointed out potentially even more problematic items that he said RDC and Peerless’s former owners left behind.
He held up a large check, signed and dated, with a distinct clump of dusty lint trailing from one corner. “Checks written by RDC and affiliate companies.” He waved his arm to a crowded closet in the corner. “Personnel files strewn throughout the building, with people’s names, addresses and Social Security numbers on them. I’m sure RDC did not want us to modify that, either.”
Coffey commented that RDC never complained when he removed the piles of trash from many of the mill’s build-ings, but that attempts to move other items left behind or to renovate, demolish or alter some of the buildings would be met with contention.
He went on. “Personal belongings of one of the Hutcheson sisters. And all of her personal files, along with per-sonnel files including health records of RDC employees.”
Near the end of the tour, RDC representatives told Coffey that they would be returning to claim a forklift they had left behind in one of the abandoned warehouse buildings.
“But they don’t care to come and get rid of their trash,” said Coffey. He feels as though the property, which he paid for, is being treated like a storage unit by the lien-holders, who he says hold undue say over the disposition of what, according to deed, is his.
Coffey was hoping to speak with city representatives about the issue Wednesday, and was sorely disappointed that none appeared.
“I noticed no one from the city of Rossville showed up, even though we invited them. I invited the city of Ross-ville to come over and look at the site...the mayor, the Rossville Downtown Development Authority and any of the city council that wanted to come as well.”
For now, the future of the Peerless site is likely to be decided in a long, drawn-out court battle, but Coffey main-tains that he is in the right, and holds no shame for standing up for himself.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” he said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
He acknowledged that this course of action isn’t likely to make him a popular man in the city of Rossville in the near future.
“(Choosing to demolish) is purely an economic decision. I’m not doing it to be popular. I’m doing it to make my children rich.”
Coffey still plans to begin demolition as soon as possible. Whether the lien-holders will try again to stop him re-mains to be seen.