The general manager of Beaver Coal Co. Ltd. has denied that his company is negotiating with a local mayoral candidate to bring a water park and convention center to Beckley.
Two representatives of the West Virginia Council of Community and Technical Colleges said the same candidate has not spoken with them about his plans of bringing a trade school to Raleigh County.
The Beckley Police Department, after seeing its shield used in the candidate’s literature, issued a formal statement saying that it does not endorse candidates in any election.
And the directors' board of the Transformation Center in Beckley has completely disassociated itself from the candidate – not that there ever was a relationship, according to project director Vickie Webb.
Meanwhile, an Aug. 22 police report from Beckley Police Department accuses the candidate of threatening to shoot a man who had repossessed a car, although no charges were filed regarding the incident.
Jim Wills, the candidate, has an explanation – for all of it.
Wills is one of six candidates vying for the mayor's seat in the May election.
On Jan. 31, Wills said he is the best candidate to be mayor. He attributed the conflicts others have with his campaign as attacks.
"I certainly can't be compared to Jim Justice, or Donald Trump, or somebody like that," he said. "But when, I think, you're the guy or the gal that has real world experience, and you've been out in the open market, and you've done real world things outside of Beckley, there are going to be things, and they're going to continue to dig and to poke, and that's OK."
Beaver Coal General Manager Joe Bevil on Jan. 31 contradicted Wills' statement that Beaver Coal was "eager to get on board" with a plan by Wills to bring an indoor water park to Beckley.
Beaver Coal owns 50,000 acres of land in and around Beckley, which it leases for commercial and residential use.
During a Jan. 28 interview with The Register-Herald, Wills talked about economic development and said that he is interested in building a water park in the city. He said that he had spoken with a Beaver Coal representative and determined that a 56-acre site behind Harper Road is owned by Beaver Coal and local coal heir and businessman Warren Hylton.
"Beaver Land has pulled their maps, and they're eager to get on board," Wills said in the interview. "I've talked to some hotel owners in the area who say they're all in, they want to be a part of it, they're committed to it."
Bevil on Jan. 31 corrected Wills' statement.
"There are no negotiations," Bevil said. "(Wills) had talked to (a Beaver Coal employee) in passing, and she said, 'Hey, Beaver has several acres that you could put a water park in.'
"But that's as far as it's ever gone," said Bevil. "There are no negotiations. There's nothing."
A new Hilton hotel is currently under construction in the Harper Park area of Harper Road, and a second hotel is planned for the immediate future. Neither of those will be water parks, according to a spokesman for the projects, and neither is associated with any effort by Wills.
Wills responded to Bevil's comments by agreeing with his assessment of the water park project.
"That is all Beaver Coal has done, period," agreed Wills. "We have since then talked to other investors.
"There's another site as well that we could look at, too, but we want to do a feasibility study, going forward, to see how we would even do it.
"I don't want people to get too far ahead of me on this," he added.
He said a goal is to have an "all encompassing" new convention center to seat at least 5,000 people and a water park, which would be a "phase project."
Wills declined to identify the firm that is conducting the feasibility and environmental studies or to list any candidates for the jobs. Most developments of this kind require a Phase 1 environmental site assessment to ensure that there are no environmental hazards on the property, under guidelines developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Wills said that a Georgia investor has told him that he has a letter of intent from Raddison hotels to build the water park, although Wills has not seen the letter.
Wills said a second potential site is the area of the Beckley regional office of West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles. He said that a Realtor suggested he look at that area of the East Beckley Bypass.
Much of the land near the DMV office is owned by Pinecrest Development Corporation, according to Bill Baker, Pinecrest Development vice president.
"I don't know about a water park," added Baker. "As far as the water, I'm not sure what capacity they would need. I'm sure we did not design for that. That's totally different than anything I've ever looked at."
Baker added that nobody has approached Pinecrest officers with plans to build a water park on the property.
The idea of a water park is not new. Wayne Williams, who ran for Raleigh County Commission in 2012 and for the West Virginia Senate in 2018, proposed a water park on U.S. 19 at Bradley prior to the 2012 elections.
"I've been talking about this for almost 10 years now," said Williams, a business blogger who has, in the past, pitched the idea of starting a "Pigeon Forge" type growth in Raleigh County. "I don't agree with the Z-Way Bypass. It's kind of out-of-the-way for people coming by."
Wills said he would consider building onto the existing Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. The center is funded with annual allocations of $100,000 each from the City of Beckley, Raleigh County Commission and Raleigh Board of Education, according to Mayor Rob Rappold.
"I don't know that he could do that," Rappold said. "He would need to make a presentation to the Conference Center board. I can't speak for the board, but I think it's a pipe dream of his."
On his campaign page, Wills posted another plan for economic development. State education officials said the plan is in extremely early stages and that Wills had requested an application from them on Jan. 29 — one day before he made a public post to announce the potential project.
Wills told The Register-Herald that he is seeking a 5,000-square-foot building in Beckley to accommodate a trade school for 60 day students and 30 evening students – eventually graduating 260 students each year. According to Wills, he has "interested and certified instructors" who are ready to start at the proposed school, which would hire six teachers and three or four support staff.
He declined to identify those instructors and staff.
Wills said that he has received an application packet for starting a business, occupational or trade school in West Virginia from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. He says he is assembling the required information.
Jessica Tice, director of communications for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, verified Thursday that Wills had first requested information on Jan. 29.
Wills wrote to state education officials that he had a certified tradesperson who was also certified to teach and that he wanted to know what he could do to get the school certified.
"I started my morning meeting with a local business owner in regards to an initiative I am working through the WV Council for Community & Technical College Education," he said. "I hope to have this effort tied down over the next couple of weeks.
"If all works out, we will start up a new trade capability in Beckley that would be enabled to graduate approximately 240 or so students every 14 months," he posted. "This program would allow individuals to complete a 7 month program and instantly be able to go out into the workforce, making a good salary or even open a business as an entrepreneur."
The application process requires a copy of curriculum and course description, a copy of the student enrollment contract, a copy of the school's tuition costs, refund policy and schedule, a list of all representatives who will solicit students and any applicable proof of accreditation.
The Attorney General's Office must approve a $50,000 surety bond as part of the application process, and the fee to apply is $2,000.
In November 2016, Wills filed in United States Southern District Bankruptcy Court for Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. He said he had to after a Florida company did not pay his company, Appalachian Paving, the final $250,000 of a $1 million invoice.
He declined to provide the name of the Florida company. The other two bankruptcy filings were made only to protect personal assets and the assets of another business, he said.
When asked about the status of the school recently, Wills declined to offer information. He expressed disappointment that The Register-Herald had corresponded with the Chancellor's Office.
He said his ideas are sincere and that he hopes to see fruition if he is elected mayor in May.
"Nothing, at all, that I have said about the effort of the school, the Convention Center, water park, full service hotel, indoor amusement park, football initiative, etc., has been an untrue statement," he said. "I am currently trying to get these things done and have committed, if elected, these are things we will have in Beckley."
Wills denied that he had publicized his plans for economic development prematurely.
When asked if he had failed to establish solid relationships with organizations and individuals, prior to mentioning them to media or publishing photos of them to Facebook, he said he had not.
Transformation Center Project Director Vicki Webb emailed a public alert to The Register-Herald on Feb. 4 regarding statements allegedly made on the Facebook page "Jim Wills for Mayor of Beckley 2020." According to Webb, Wills' campaign had solicited donations of bikes under an unauthorized use of the Transformation Center's name.
The Transformation Center is a community center on Antonio Avenue that offers education support and other resources for area youth and families.
According to Webb, Wills had reported on Facebook in late January that he was accepting donations for 100 bicycles for the center on Antonio Avenue and that he would write a receipt for the donation.
The Transformation Center is the only center on Antonio Avenue, said Webb. She said her organization has not authorized Wills to collect bicycles.
"The East Beckley Transformation Center never authorized Jim Wills to conduct a bike drive for the center," Webb stated. "He never spoke to me as the director of the center, nor did our board authorize or give him permission to raise funds for the community center through his campaign.
"Once we found out about what he was doing, and a statement of the facts sent to him, he changed the Facebook post," Webb said. "But I want the public to know that we are not soliciting funds through Jim Wills and that we want to ensure that the integrity of our center is maintained."
Webb said the financial record-keeping ramifications concerned her.
“Who’s accountable?" she asked. "If he is taking up money in our name, how’s he going to account for the money?
“We did not authorize it. That is not our vision for the Transformation Center."
Webb added that everything at the Transformation Center has been donated without public solicitation by board members.
Wills told The Register-Herald on Feb. 5 that he had made a mistake with the wording of the Facebook post and had corrected it as soon as Transformation Center board members brought it to his attention. He said he is not collecting bikes for the Transformation Center but for another community project and that he had made an honest mistake.
Some had reported that Wills' campaign materials had used a BPD police badge to suggest an endorsement. Wills said he had not intended to suggest that BPD was endorsing him as a candidate.
BPD Chief Lonnie Christian reminded voters that BPD does not endorse any candidate, although individual police officers can pick their own candidates.
"As a public service organization, we do not provide any endorsements or support."
According to a Beckley police incident report filed Aug. 22, Wills threatened to shoot a man who was repossessing a vehicle from his property and then told a police officer that the department would have to respond to the shooting.
Wills said his truck was not repossessed and that he wanted to address the incident.
On Jan. 31, Wills voluntarily told The Register-Herald about the incident. Wills said that an "enemy" on Facebook had posted that Wills' truck had been repossessed and that he had been involved in a "police chase."
"I want to show everybody that there is no arrest," said Wills. "There is nothing against me from the city police, or otherwise.
"If there was something wrong ... there would certainly be a police report that says, 'Jim Wills was arrested.'"
According to Wills, his mother, identified by Blue Ridge Funeral Home and Memorial Gardens as Malinda Lindsey, had died June 2. Wills said he had notified a Virginia credit union, Northwest Credit Union, of her death but that a mix-up in their offices had resulted in the car being unexpectedly repossessed on the night of Aug. 22.
"Rather than come knock on the door, they come and took the car out of the driveway," said Wills. "My son-in-law saw them. He called me and said, 'Hey, they just took Grandma's car.'
"So I jumped in my truck, ran down to catch the guy. Then, of course, when he realized I was behind him, he called Beckley police."
Wills said he could not recall "which of the police officers" responded. He described a civil exchange in which the officer helped him get his late mother's personal effects from her car.
"I said, 'Hey, there's some personal effects in the car. I'm not fighting with anybody. You can have the car, because, by the way, they tore up the front end of the car when they did that.'
"The city police officers were kind enough to help me unload the stuff out of the car. I went home and went to bed and was done with it.
"The car was sentimental because it was my mother's," he added. "So if that means we were on a mad police chase, and my truck was repossessed — these stories get embellished, and I love it.
"There was no police chase."
In an Aug. 22 incident report, which The Register-Herald obtained from police under a Freedom of Information Act request, a police officer wrote that a tow truck driver identified as Walter Fitzwater had called Raleigh 911 around 10:41 p.m. Fitzwater reported that he had repossessed a vehicle on Virginia Street and that Wills was following him and driving erratically in the westbound lane of Harper Road. Fitzwater was concerned that Wills had become a danger to the public on the roadways.
The 911 dispatcher told Fitzwater to come to police headquarters. When Fitzwater turned around at a gas station, the complaint alleges, Wills nearly struck the tow truck with his own truck, a Toyota Tundra.
An officer, Logan Christian, intercepted Fitzwater when he was on his way to police headquarters.
"At that time, I spoke with the suspect, Mr. Wills," the officer wrote. "Mr. Wills stated that he had no idea who had tried to take his vehicle and had no idea why.
"Upon asking him why he did not call the police, he did not respond.
"Mr. Wills was very irate and was screaming curse words and was advised multiple occasions to keep his voice down and to stop cursing."
The officer wrote that Wills calmed down "for a short time period" and that Wills and Fitzwater made a civil agreement for Wills to give the car keys to Fitzwater and to get personal items from the car.
Wills began to retrieve personal items, according to the complaint.
The officer reported that Wills then threatened Fitzwater, "If you come near me, I will shoot you."
The complaint charges that Wills then looked at the officer and added, "And you guys will have to respond to take care of it."
Wills left after making the alleged statement to the police officer, according to the complaint.
"Mr. Fitzwater stated that he was concerned for his safety," wrote the officer.
Police Chief Christian explained that Wills had not been charged with making terroristic threats, although that is the charge police had considered.
"After discussion and review of the incident, we felt that the actions were borderline to meet the requirements of West Virginia code for charges," said Chief Christian. "Therefore, no criminal charges were pursued."