After stalking and bullying Josh’s Farmers Market for months to force its closure as a temporary business, we’ve discovered that the town’s planning director, Danny Wilson, who’s the face of the town’s strong-arming of the market, is a liar.
That’s where we are.
People have picked sides. A few people continue standing firm in their convictions that the market has had plenty of time to build permanently and “doesn’t follow the rules.” One or two have pointed a finger at the messenger, calling me “biased” (yawn). But the large majority of the town has staunchly stood in support of Josh’s Farmers Market, which has served our town for years longer than many (if not most) current government officials knew Mooresville was a place on the map. And some might have still been in diapers.
But how did we get here? How did I go from naively asking a couple simple questions of town officials last October to where we are today?
It’s worth a look back, especially for those of you who found us in the middle of this story. (PS Good to have y’all.)
To be honest, I started out on the other side of this issue. While I’ve always been a fan of Josh’s Farmers Market, I regularly speak with a lot of town officials — some of whom I consider … or considered — friends. I heard all the stories about how the town bent over backwards to help the market’s owner, Josh Graham, and how he dug his heels in and did what he wanted, no matter what the town tried to have him do.
I believed that narrative and had no particular interest in looking further into it. Covering local government has always been a passion of mine and a service that I’ve felt honored to be able to provide our community. At the same time, I’ll admit it takes a lot to persuade me to cover a story when I know it will take substantial time away from my family and the work that pays my bills.
Then Oct. 15 happened. I found it curious that the Town of Mooresville — as a government — would take to its Facebook page to preemptively defend itself against taking steps to force the market’s closure. Or, more plainly: Local government took to the people’s Facebook page to launch an attack against a small, local business.
The provided reason: “To get our side of the story out.”
The words “our side” were off-putting to me. Why would the government have a “side” against a small, local business?
But when the town publicly offered its side without any indication of Graham’s “side,” I, of course, became interested in that side.
So I asked. And to hear Graham tell it, we spoke on the phone for six hours over two days, with him filling me in on all the nitty-gritty details. At the end, he asked me: “Okay, now what are you gonna do with all that information?”
My reply: “I’ll take it to the town folks to get their response.” I told him that I would dig to find the facts myself and promised that if I discovered that the facts aligned with what he was telling me, I would cover the story and wouldn’t stop digging until I got to the bottom of one question: Why?
It turns out that it would be public officials’ emails — hundreds of them — that would paint the most accurate and detailed picture of what had been going on … and how personal this fight had become before the town decided to bully a small, local business in the public eye. Town managers, the mayor, planners and the public information officer were all involved — commissioners were included later — and they were all fully aware that what they were about to do would upset the citizenry: the people who pay staff’s salaries and elect the mayor and commissioners to office.
I read how the Oct. 15 Facebook post was planned and pored over by multiple town employees. I started questioning in my mind the number of hours and resources those town staff members spent on this smear campaign against a local business while we, the taxpayers — most of us admitted fans of the market — were footing the bill.
Since receiving those records in a public records request, I have allowed the emails to speak for public officials because, frankly, a picture was emerging that showed I had previously been sold somewhat of a bill of goods from town officials about Josh Graham.
Let me be clear: Josh Graham isn’t perfect, and he has not once ever indicated to me that he thinks he is — quite the opposite, actually. Much unlike the Town of Mooresville, Graham has been quick to own up to his shortcomings and mistakes in this process and to share what he would do differently if he could start over.
Maybe, I started realizing, Graham isn’t just a hot-headed business owner throwing a temper tantrum, after all. After numerous conversations with Graham, in fact, I started seeing a simple, honest, hard-working Mooresville boy who just wanted to work and — like countless others — knew nothing about the structure and processes of local government or a 500-page Unified Development Ordinance or that his business had been written out of it by a bunch of shiny-shoe government planners sitting in air-conditioned offices.
However, it never left my conscience that this same guy knew he was operating with an expired license, and while it caused him anxiety because this is his livelihood and that of several others, he was still operating “illegally” in town. And that was a sticking point for me.
But then I started noticing the details of the story that the town conveniently left out. For instance, while government officials said they gave Graham plenty of time to build his permanent market, they didn’t divulge that six months of the 12-month temporary permit they gave him were wrapped up in a town-required traffic impact analysis (TIA) for Graham to move .8 of a mile down the road. All permitting had to stop during that time, per the town, so — intentionally or not — the town set the market up to fail from the jump.
While the town repeatedly blames N.C. Department of Transportation for hold-ups on important projects, when Graham shared that NCDOT’s delay of the Williamson Road widening would cost him $500,000 that he would lose if he built now on his $800,000 piece of property at Williamson and Sundown Roads, the town shrugged and said not our problem.
Town planners determined the market is a “retail sales establishment” and doesn’t fit under any of their other ordinances. They didn’t divulge that they had changed the ordinances last year and written the market’s long-standing business model out of them, forcing it, instead, into a “retail sales” box.
Where ordinances were vague, town planners said they get to “interpret” them. To this day, they stand by the wording of their ordinances even while recently making substantial text amendments to them — ironically, many tightening areas of the ordinances that we and Graham’s lawyers have argued were vague — and trying to secretly move them through the necessary channels for approval.
When Graham played by the rules, town planners moved the goalpost. Most recently they went so far as to severely limit the items that the market had carried under three identical, previously approved permits. And though we didn’t know it at the time, Planning Director Wilson was also secretly filing a complaint with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, apparently hoping that the agency would shut down the market’s ability to sell meats like its “JFM Seafood.”
That inspection would go nowhere, but it was just one more example of how far our local government — funded by our tax dollars — would go to shut down something that the people are saying they want to keep. Wilson, the planner, said he didn’t complain about the market to the state. Our last article — again using public records to find the truth — showed that Wilson lied.
With all this actual information — not he-said-she-said — in hand, you can bet I’ve picked a side. I’ve also watched as a few elected officials have changed their positions, too. Commissioner Eddie Dingler has championed a compromise for months, and other commissioners have recently joined him in publicly asking staff for a solution.
How did staff respond? By stalking the market from a nearby parking lot the day before it was even open in its new location. The town has since sent a notice of violation to Graham and the landowner of 630 Brawley School Road because of a wooden (not-for-sale) swing on the property and for freshening up the existing gravel space with — get this — gravel.
What we’ve watched is a local government that had plenty of options to help a local, loved business instead dig its heels in to force it to close, even going against its own ordinances. The facts show that it’s not Graham who is refusing to budge; it’s the town.
Our government has treated us, the people, like we’re peasants and they’re the crown when nothing could be further from the truth. Many of you have reached out over the months asking for clarification about the difference between town staff and the town board. I’ll get to that in a second, but here’s the most important takeaway: If you pay taxes and can vote in Mooresville, YOU are the boss. You’re the CEO. You elect the mayor and commissioners who sit on the town board — you’ll have another chance to do that in just a few months — and it’s their role to do our bidding for us. We should be able to trust them to do that. If not, we have the opportunity to fire them. It comes up every four years for commissioners and every two for the mayor.
Those board members can hire and fire only three people: the town manager — in this case Randy Hemann — the town attorney and the town clerk. The board cannot hire or fire other staff members; that’s Hemann’s job.
Town staff is everyone who is under Hemann, including department heads and staff from planning, engineering, police, fire, utilities etc. We don’t vote for the town manager; the town board hired him and can fire him if a majority of the board — four commissioners or three commissioners and the mayor as a tiebreaker — agree that’s necessary.
I think we have staff members who should lose their jobs over this situation, but I hate we’re here, and I’m not celebrating it. In fact, I’m repulsed by the time, energy and resources that our town’s staff has wasted on targeting and bullying a local business. I am sick that a local business has suffered, that the family who owns it has suffered, that its vendors have suffered, that its employees have suffered and that its hosting property owners have suffered under the pressure of a local-government-gone-rogue — a complete circus.
I hope that the commissioners who are standing with Dingler continue doing so, maybe now more than ever, and I hope that the town — even if it requires a change in leadership — will find a way to stop this madness and will work with the market to keep it open until it can establish permanent roots because, as much as we appreciate the sentiment of people in multiple other counties offering their space to Josh’s Farmers Market, we ain’t lettin’ it go nowhere.