Commissioners approved a historic monument application to the federal government, hoping to obtain the building at no cost in exchange for preserving its historic integrity. The inch-thick application also had to include a preservation plan.
“We had to be specific on what we’re going to do with it,” said County Manager Kevin King. “We have to keep the building as is on the exterior and we’ll only make minor modifications inside.”
It could be another two months before the county knows whether the application is approved and another year to officially acquire the building. An approval would mean some major moves for the county administration, school administrative and the Bryson City Police Department.
King said partnering with other governmental agencies in the community made for a stronger application and a higher chance of getting the historic monument grant. If the county acquires the building, the plan is for the county administrative offices to relocate to the third floor, Swain County Schools administration to take over the second floor and the Bryson City Police Department would occupy the right wing of the bottom floor.
King also said the application includes plans for a restaurant to locate on the left side of the bottom floor where the post office used to be. The county would put out a request for proposals for restaurants to lease the space.
“This will be a great collaboration between three entities in the community along with a commercial business,” King said.
King said the county would cover the minor renovations to the third floor while the school system and the police department would be responsible for renovations needed on their respective floors. The three entities would also split utility costs.
If the county obtains the building, renovation work would have to begin within 36 months, but King said the building is in fairly good shape for its age. The boilers were replaced within the last 10 years and the roof is about eight years old.
“An engineering analysis shows it’s old but it’s still workable — the bones are good,” he said.
Commission Chairman Phil Carson said moving county offices to the federal building would allow the court system to have more space in the administrative building on Mitchell Street. Currently, the administrative building has two small courtrooms that are often used at the same time, which leads to a lot of congestion.
Commissioner Danny Burns said the state court system was putting pressure on Swain County to have more room to operate the court system — making this project a win-win for all parties involved.
“We have to meet the state’s requests,” he said.
While it appears completely empty, the federal building does have a few current tenants, including the Cooperative Extension office and the Soil and Water Conservation District. They will have to begin looking for new office space when their leases are up if the county’s application is approved.
The federal government finally closed the building at the end of 2013 as a cost-saving measure. It was the farthest west federal court facility in operation, but now all federal legal matters have been shipped to Asheville. Commissioner David Monteith said Swain County has been eying the building since discussions of the closure started in 2012 but it all depended on the price tag.
“Now we have a chance to get it for free,” he said. “The court system wants more room and everyone is paying for their portion of the building so the cost is very little — it’s a win-win situation.”