Georgia man withdraws from Wrangell housing deal, blames newspaper headline

a former hospital
The site of the former Wrangell Medical Center. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Wrangell’s former hospital building had a buyer, but he has quashed the deal — citing a headline in the local newspaper.

The project would have renovated the old Wrangell Medical Center into much-needed housing.  But Georgia resident Wayne Johnson ended his plans because he didn’t like a headline in the Wrangell Sentinel that read: “Hospital property developer now wants borough lots for free.”

Johnson intended to purchase the building for $200,000, which is significantly less than the appraised value of $800,000.

He also planned to buy the six adjacent lots and he said he was going to develop between 36 and 40 housing units on the property.

“Unfortunately, the local newspaper decided to characterize it as the lots being conveyed under, I think the headline was, ‘Developer now wants borough lots for free,’” Johnson said. “I never wanted anything for free.”

The City and Borough of Wrangell offered Johnson the six lots for free if he demolished the asbestos-filled medical center by June 30, 2026. But Johnson said there were still inherent costs — he estimated the demolition expenses at roughly $1 million. Johnson said the Sentinel’s headline was inaccurate, which caused him to pull out of his investment.

“I’m just in a situation where, you know, just my reputation and my intents are very positive towards the city of Wrangell,” he said. “I felt like the headline, unfortunately, and even portions of the story, misrepresented what the city and I had agreed to.” 

He said withdrawing from developing the lots removes any doubt others might have in him.

The Wrangell Sentinel’s publisher, Larry Persily, disagrees that the headline was wrong. 

“I felt the story was accurate. The headline was accurate,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Johnson has decided to cancel his investment and development plans in Wrangell.”

Originally, Johnson was supposed to close on the purchase by May 31. But then he asked the borough for the adjacent land at a reduced cost.

The borough agreed to change the contract to include a requirement for demolishing the building, which would save the borough from liability. And, in return, Johnson would get the six lots for free.

Persily questions whether it really was the headline that changed Johnson’s course.

“So it all changed because of a headline, which I find somewhat a convenient excuse for someone who maybe didn’t want to follow through after all,” he said.

Persily has been in Alaska journalism and politics for decades. He said he does not feel a need to defend the headline.

“I’ve been at this for 50 years,” he said. “I’ve been called worse things by better people. No, I don’t (think I need to defend myself). I feel I should explain myself when people ask.”

Earlier this year, Persily said he had a few interactions with Johnson when reporting on the development project. He said their interactions were cordial until June 28, two days after the headline came out.

He said that Johnson accused him of purposefully writing the headline for clickbait or sensationalizing it for attention.

“Look, clickbait,” Persily said. “I think (what) people in Wrangell use bait for is fishing, not social media.”

Borough Manager Mason Villarma said he doesn’t have much to say on the withdrawal, except that he appreciates the time everyone spent on planning.

“A lot of staff worked hard on seeing through as far as we could go,” he said. “Moving on and what I hear is we have two interested parties already.”

The borough spends approximately $100,000 a year to maintain the old hospital building. It was estimated that demolishing the building would cost $2 million.

As for Johnson’s future in Wrangell, the Georgia resident said he intends to continue to visit often. He has a two-year lease on the island, has two boats docked in town and is looking for land to build a house on. He also brought a food truck to Wrangell to sell boiled crab.

And he’s running as a Republican for U.S. Congress in Georgia this year.

“I will be leaving in a couple of weeks to head back to Georgia to fully engage in my campaign for the United States Congress,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a very intense few months.”

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