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A handful of Haywood County residents are demanding a vote by the people before county leaders proceed with purchasing the abandoned Wal-Mart building.

The request comes despite the county commissioners’ unanimous vote in January to buy the shopping center to house the Department of Social Services along with the Health Department.

Haywood has yet to secure the 40-year, low-interest federal Rural Development loan to fund the project.

If granted, the loan would require an annual debt payment of about $632,000 starting in 2012. But the county claims rent from Tractor Supply Co., which is leasing a part of the building, along with state reimbursements for health and social services, will cut that number by about half.

Citizens at Monday’s commissioners meeting argued that since the money would be coming out of their own pockets, they should be allowed to vote on the issue.

They claimed that commissioners were willfully bypassing the vote by deciding to apply for the federal loan, instead of holding a bond referendum to finance the project.

“The commissioners, in essence, are telling the people of Haywood County that you do not trust our judgment,” said Beverly Elliot.

Another speaker, Lynda Bennett, accused the commissioners of holding secret sessions, while at the same time admitting the commissioners had not broken any laws in purchasing the Wal-Mart.

“It is legal, but it’s not popular,” said Bennett.

Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said he fully stands behind the commissioners’ decision and sees a vote by the people as unnecessary in this case.

“We are elected to make decisions on behalf of the county,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that not every item that comes forth demands a countywide vote. “Vote by the people is an expensive item, and we choose those items carefully.”

Kirkpatrick said the commissioners had only gone into closed session to discuss price negotiations, and closed session minutes will be released once the purchase is finalized.

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis pointed out that the citizens who criticized the commissioners had already left before the seeing the presentation of design plans for the renovated Wal-Mart.

“They don’t have enough interest to be involved with what’s going on here,” said Curtis. “How in the world can you vote on something if you don’t know what you’re voting on?”

Wal-Mart no more

Haywood County commissioners are joining a burgeoning nationwide movement that is making use of abandoned Wal-Marts and foresaken strip malls in creative ways.

Deserted Wal-Marts across the country have been reworked into a library, a mega-church, an indoor flea market, an early childhood center, a go-kart track, and even a museum devoted to spam in Minnesota.

Haywood isn’t even the first county to house its Department of Social Services in a Wal-Mart. Orange County and Person County, both in North Carolina, have already taken that step.

Local governments have increasingly taken the reins after locking down replacement retailers for these behemoth stores proved fruitless.

Countless municipalities across the U.S. have experienced the flightiness of corporate giants that plant then quickly uproot their businesses to build bigger and newer somewhere else — leaving the blight of a forlorn big-box strip mall in their wake.

Wal-Mart and Lowe’s seem to be the biggest offenders, according to Meg Ryan O’Donnell, former advisor to a N.C. smart growth commission. O’Donnell dubs the trend “big-box syndrome.”

Those who have gone before

Just like Haywood, Orange County needed a new home for its aged social services building, which had limited space, security and privacy.

“We needed, instead of just a patchwork arrangement, something that would give us a little bit of room to meet needs and be able to expand,” said Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs.

The abandoned Wal-Mart in Orange County sat vacant for a number of years with no takers. A worsened economy certainly didn’t help sell the property.

“There was no movement,” said Jacobs. “It was an eyesore and a drain for the retail establishments that were nearby.”

The county added energy efficient fixtures and windows, and even skylights to the space.

At first Orange County toyed with the idea of converting the old Wal-Mart to a community college before settling instead on DSS as its new occupant.

Jacobs said the county might move the health department there as well, to create a one-stop facility for residents.

Haywood County Manager David Cotton said utilizing the old Wal-Mart would already be an environmentally friendly move.

Renovating the aged DSS building or building a new facility from scratch would lead to much more waste being hauled off to the landfill, Cotton said.

And Haywood hopes to pursue even more green benefits, including a pitched roof, energy-efficient heating and cooling units, solar panels and even roof mounted compact wind turbines.

Jacobs warned that making the structure more durable would be one challenge looming ahead.

“The problem with those buildings, they’re not built to last,” said Jacobs. “They’re just shells with a roof ... In our society, we’re too ready to throw things away.”

Nevertheless, Haywood Commissioner Mark Swanger is strongly in favor of moving into the old Wal-Mart.

“This is the best and highest use for these types of construction,” said Swanger.

What neighbors have to say

Haywood County officials seem confident that the new DSS and health department would bring significant traffic to surrounding businesses, whether it’s from its 200 employees or clients.

“Albeit it’s not going to be the financial economic anchor that Wal-Mart served, but I think it would serve as an anchor for businesses that are there,” said David Cotton, county manager for Haywood.

For example, clients could make one trip to pick up food stamps then head a few doors down to a grocery store to use them, Cotton said.

Cathy McBride, manager at Dollar Tree in the same shopping complex as the abandon Wal-Mart, said her business had actually improved after the giant left town.

But McBride looks forward to Haywood County taking over the vacant space.

“It’ll bring more business to us,” said McBride. “I think it’s good for the area. It looks bad, sitting there empty.”

McBride said she’d appreciate the security of once again walking out to a lit up parking lot at night.

Debra Surrett, an employee at nearby Food Lion, said she also supports Haywood’s move.

“If anyone’s ever been to DSS, it’s old,” said Surrett. “There’s a lot of people coming in there. They need a nicer building.”

Surrett has definitely noticed a decline in customers at the grocery store after Wal-Mart picked up and left. She expects more customers after the county moves in.

“It’s really gonna boost everything in this shopping center,” said Surrett.

While Surrett has heard opponents complain about the county yanking the business out of the tax rolls by taking it over, she said DSS and health department employees deserve a new space.

“Sure it takes taxpayer money, but they serve the county,” said Surrett.

Year after year, Haywood County commissioners recognized the social service and health department buildings were falling apart.

Yet they passed the buck, hoping the next set of fresh-faced commissioners would tackle the lingering issue.

Last week, county commissioners got over a bad case of procrastination and took action.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, commissioners voted unanimously to buy the old Wal-Mart near Lake Junaluska and renovate the space to house more than 200 employees who have been putting up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes and crammed office space.

County leaders have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility. The latest session lasted for nearly five hours, as presentations and comments from all sides were heard for the final time.

The county is not revealing how much it’ll pay Georgia-based RCG Ventures for the property, but its initial estimates place the total cost of the project somewhere between $12 and $12.5 million. The county will shell out about $6.6 million for the property alone.

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. While the state pays for the cost of social programs and a portion of social workers salaries, counties are responsible for providing a building for them to work in.

Facility inspections landed the Haywood County’s DSS building in the bottom 1 percent of more than 70 DSS facilities across the state.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which date to 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the abandoned Wal-Mart.

It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

Purchasing land and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million.

Two architectural firms independently ruled out renovation as a viable option — the cost of renovating would likely exceed the price of buying another facility.

County Manager David Cotton pointed out the crumbling structure lacked flexibility and had inherent design flaws due to its age.

Cotton said he wanted to make it “crystal clear” that all counties are mandated to provide adequate services, and that Haywood had to take action.

With the three options in front of them, commissioners felt strongly that the best solution was to occupy the abandoned Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious.”

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Jonnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run.

“It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and the health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health Director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.

 

What now?

Haywood will attempt to lock in a low-interest federal loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. The county is optimistic about the prospect, as the USDA is now flush with stimulus funds.

Citizen Randy Burress remained unconvinced and said placing all hopes on stimulus money was a “bad joke.”

“All this sunshine and lollipops, you’re still talking about our money,” said Burress. “We can’t stand any more taxes. We don’t need any more taxes, period.”

While commissioners hope they won’t have to raise taxes, they admit the loan could lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate in 2012.

If Haywood does score the 40-year loan for $12.5 million, it would result in initial loan payments of $260,000 each year. The county may need to borrow less depending on how much it will cost to retrofit the inside of Wal-Mart. Estimates are still pending.

If the county cannot obtain the USDA loan, it would take out a conventional loan and possibly sell county property to raise funds.

The loan process could take up to six months, according to Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey.

A few weeks ago, the county put out a request for bids from local architects. The USDA requires an architect’s project estimate to be included with the loan application.

Stamey said the commissioners will likely make a decision on an architectural firm no later than the second meeting in February.

Meanwhile, the county hopes to put “for sale” signs on some of its other properties. Selling the existing DSS building and health department would add to the county’s property tax base and possibly spur commercial development and sales tax.

Stamey said the county would have to take the long list of structural problems into account when setting the price for the DSS building and handing it off to the next owner.

A potential buyer interested in converting the facility into housing for the elderly has already approached the county.

But considering the recession, Stamey confessed it may be difficult to unload some of the other properties off the county’s hands.

“Some of the property, we may need to keep,” said Stamey.

After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated Wal-Mart. It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.

Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious."

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward, knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.

Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Johnnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run. “It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have routinely gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.

Haywood County Commissioners are expected to vote this week to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services.

Commissioners will convene a special meeting on the issue Wednesday (Jan. 13) where a vote is likely. They have been considering the old Wal-Mart site for more than a year.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said there are several reasons the old Wal-Mart is under serious consideration by the county — primarily because it is the cheapest option. Swanger called it a potential “bargain” for taxpayers.

Remodeling the current DSS office building, which dates back to the late 1920s and early ‘50s, could suck the county into a money pit, Swanger said.

“It would require millions in renovations, heating air, roof windows and you still have an inadequate space for doing business,” Swanger said.

Other sticky issues include lack of privacy for DSS workers handling sensitive cases and lack of handicapped accessibility.

“It is in the bottom one percent of DSS facilities in the state of North Carolina,” Swanger said.

Commissioner Bill Upton detailed the never-ending maintenance issues.

“It’s going to need a new roof, it’s going to need windows, it’s not wired for today’s technologies,” said Upton. “We could go on and on about what it would cost us, we would still have an old building.”

Meanwhile, building something new — including the cost of buying land and site work — would likely be twice as much as what the county hopes to spend on the old Wal-Mart site.

Upton, who supports buying the Wal-Mart property, estimates that a brand new DSS building would scoop $25 to $30 million out of Haywood’s budget.

Taking over the Wal-Mart property will require extensive remodeling to turn the gaping retail shell into offices, but it already has a roof and comes with a parking lot, for example.

Upton is confident that the new county offices would serve as a strong anchor for the shopping center and stimulate adjacent businesses.

Until now, county leaders have had a bad habit of putting off the looming problem for another year, according to Swanger.

“I think it has been recognized by many boards that this space is unsuitable and inadequate,” Swanger said.

As the DSS building continued to deteriorate, the county spent the past decade building a new justice center, a new jail and remodeling the historic courthouse, tying up much of its capital, along with things like a new elementary school in Bethel and new buildings at Haywood Community College.

“I suppose it has been just a matter of priorities,” Swanger said.

Though negotiations have been on and off for more than a year, the county is now in a better financial position to buy the property, Upton said.

“If we don’t do something now, it’s going to cost us much more in the future to buy property and start building,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

Upton also pointed out the geographic location in the middle of the county as being convenient to a greater number of residents.

If approved on Wednesday, Haywood’s DSS and health departments might share the old Wal-Mart with Tractor Supply Co., which is in the process of signing a lease for a portion of the store.

A local developer has purchased a key parcel alongside Super Wal-Mart in Waynesville, potentially kick-starting long-awaited commercial redevelopment along the South Main Street corridor.

The coming of Super Wal-Mart was heralded as an instant recipe for growth around it. But by the time Wal-Mart opened its doors a year ago, the recession was in full swing. Not only has a South Main boom failed to materialize, but Home Depot killed plans to open a store there.

But Brian Noland, a Waynesville developer and Realtor, is drafting plans for a retail strip sporting six storefronts along South Main Street with hopes of attracting national franchises.

“I put myself in their shoes, and if I am looking to go somewhere, that is definitely a hot spot,” Noland said, citing traffic volume from Wal-Mart and the easy access off the U.S. 23-74 bypass.

Noland closed on the two-acre parcel this month for $600,000. The total project will cost several million dollars, he said. Noland hopes to have the building completed and occupied by early summer.

Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development Director, said he is glad to see movement in the area. While Waynesville has the consumer demand to support many of the national franchises Noland is likely courting, scouts often look solely at population data, Clasby said.

“But we know there are more people than that because of tourists and the second-home market. They just don’t necessarily show up,” Clasby said. “It will take some salesmanship to convince [retailers] from a demographic standpoint that ‘You need to be here.’”

Noland has a national franchise broker working to line up leases. Noland said he was “a very small fish in a big sea,” but believes if he builds it, they will come.

Meanwhile, a second so-called “outparcel” in the Super Wal-Mart complex has also sold. A 1.8-acre tract behind Hardees sold for $550,000. The developer of the site, Donald Holland, has submitted site plans to the town for a car wash and oil change business and an additional commercial building for an unidentified tenant. The site is located along the Waynesville Commons entrance drive off South Main Street.

While Noland has not yet locked in leases, he already has the project underway with the building design. The attractive architecture will sport stacked stone and stucco with varying rooflines and pronounced eaves. It’s a good thing, since a run-of-the-mill, monotonous, low-slung strip mall wouldn’t pass muster with the town’s design standards. Noland has yet to submit his plans to the town for approval, but believes the town will like the look.

The development of the Super Wal-Mart outparcels were considered key to the appearance of South Main. Town leaders hoped attractive developments fronting South Main would visually shield the sprawling Wal-Mart parking lot set further back on the site.

Noland is a Realtor with Remax Creekside Realty. He is currently developing a 46-unit affordable townhouse development in the Clyde area. His first foray into development was in the mini-storage unit business 14 years ago. He has also built and operated three car wash and lube locations in Haywood County.

“I love developing. I really do,” Noland said. “Hopefully, the whole shopping center itself will be a one-stop shop.”

Noland has had the property under contract for 10 months. He purchased it from Cedarwood Development, a national firm that developed the complex known as Waynesville Commons and leases the site to Super Wal-Mart.

Several property owners along the corridor have had their property on the market since the coming of Super Wal-Mart, even booting out current tenants in anticipation of hot demand by national chains seeking proximity to the retail giant. So far, these property owners have failed to find takers.

Best Buy and a Verizon Wireless store are the only two major retailers that have set up shop around Wal-Mart so far.

The 12-acre site immediately beside Wal-Mart that was once slated for a Home Depot does not appear to have a taker yet. Home Depot, which had already purchased the site and even designed a building before backing out, still owns the site and is actively marketing it.

“The economy has obviously had an impact on that,” Clasby said. “It’s not an easy market, there is no question about it.”

Haywood County commissioners are once again considering the abandoned Wal-Mart shell for a new Department of Social Services building.

The current DSS building is housed in a cramped and crumbling 80-year-old building that was once the county’s old hospital. Patching the building has become an expensive proposition, with the latest issue a leaking roof that would cost $260,000 to repair. The county’s facility director, Dale Burris, said there is no easy patch that could solve the problem.

“We can’t find where the leaks are to be honest. You patch one area and it comes in a different area,” Burris said.

Commissioners have long known that the DSS building either needed a major and costly top-to-bottom overhaul or relocation to a new building. When Wal-Mart left a gaping hole in the strip mall where it was located to take up new digs on the other side of town last year, commissioners began eyeing the vacant spot. They decided not to pursue it at the time given the county’s economic situation with the recession. At that time commissioners were seeking a federal loan of up to $11 million to purchase and renovate the retail building.

Commissioners decided they should revisit it, however.

“It’s going to be a constant stream of tax dollars going into a building that is 80 years old,” Swanger said. “I think we would be remiss to marry ourselves to this building. If we put a quarter million dollars into it, we will do the same thing the year after and the year after, and at the end of the day we will still have a bad building.”

At the time commissioners were considering the old Wal-Mart site, County Manager David Cotton had said buying land and building a new DSS building from scratch could cost up to $25 million. Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the old Wal-Mart site would save millions over constructing a new DSS building, a cost that his children will bear.

“They will say ‘Why didn’t you seize the opportunity when you could have,’” Ensley said.

The former DSS director, Tony Beaman, stepped down earlier this year. The department now has a new DSS director, Ira Dove.

The old Wal-Mart could also house the health department, which is in need of new quarters.

At long last, Wal-Mart will be coming to Cherokee.

A move to bring a 120,000-square-foot superstore to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation has been in the works for nearly four years. On May 20, the tribal council voted in favor of approving a ground lease with the company. The vote was split, with three council members opposing and nine in favor of the measure.

“When completed, the Cherokee Wal-Mart Supercenter will be part of a much larger mega-retail development offering products and services currently not available to Tribal members and visitors to the Qualla Boundary,” said Mickey Duvall, planning and development director for the tribe, in an email statement.

The tribe would be in charge of constructing the $25 million building for Wal-Mart on a 22-acre parcel of land on the reservation, according to Duvall. The tribe would then lease the building to Wal-Mart at a cost of between $564,000 and $720,000 per year, Duvall said. The lease agreement is for a mandatory 20 years plus six optional five-year renewals, for a total of 50 years.

If Wal-Mart made an average yearly lease payment of $642,000 over a 20-year period, the tribe would only receive $12.8 million — just over half the cost of constructing the building.

The idea that the tribe may not recoup the full amount it pays to construct the Wal-Mart was the primary reason tribal council Chairman Mike Parker voted against the lease agreement.

“There’s no guarantee that they’re going to stick around long enough to pay that money back,” Parker said. “I wasn’t opposed to Wal-Mart, just the idea of giving them $25 million and then with no language in the lease holding them to that amount, I just couldn’t rationalize that in my mind. It doesn’t make business sense to give them $25 million with no guarantee.”

But according to Duvall, the tribe had little choice but to construct the building if it wanted to land Wal-Mart on the reservation.

“Since the Wal-Mart cannot purchase or own trust property on the Qualla Boundary, the tribe elected to build and own the building and lease it back to Wal-Mart,” Duvall said.

Additionally, tribal officials are anticipating that the superstore will bring in nearly $214 million in tribal levy over a 25-year period, with the amount of levy gradually increasing with each five-year period. The tribe’s levy rate is 7 percent.

“This project alone will almost double the current Tribal Levy collections,” Duvall said. However, some of the levy raised by sales at Wal-Mart will be in lieu of sales already occuring at other stores on the reservation, so not all the levy would be considered a net gain.

Duvall said there are two scenarios for the Super Wal-Mart’s opening date. The “fast track” scenario has the store opening by December 2011. The “regular track” scenario has the store opening by December 2013.

It looks like the Department of Social Services in Haywood County won’t be getting a new home after all. Haywood County commissioners decided against purchasing the old Wal-Mart building, which would have housed DSS as well as the health department, in a closed session last week (May 4).

“The commissioners decided that now is not the right time in light of everything else what we’ve had to do as a county in response to the global economic crisis,” said County Manager David Cotton.

County officials were seeking a USDA loan between $10 million and $11 million to fund the purchase and renovations to the building.

Finding a new home for DSS has long been on the county’s to-do list. The department is housed in a decrepit, crumbling old hospital, and is so cramped for space that some closets double as offices.

The old Wal-Mart would have been less expensive than building on a new site.

“In our capital improvements plan, we’d actually identified needing $20 million to $25 million to buy a piece of land and build from scratch,” Cotton said.

The old Wal-Mart purchase is not completely off the table, Cotton said. He said the company that owns the building, RBC Ventures, is still open to the idea of if county officials change their mind.

A hulking space in the strip mall along U.S. 74 in Clyde that has sat vacant since the departure of Wal-Mart could get a new tenant — the Haywood County departments of Health and Social Services.

A new building to house both departments is the next project on the county’s list of capital improvements. A larger and more conducive space for DSS, which is currently housed in the county’s decades-old former hospital, has been a particular priority. The county is currently shelling out almost $30,000 per year to maintain the cramped, run-down DSS building.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the building is not adequate,” said County Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It’s in disrepair and it’s very expensive to maintain. You’re dealing with an almost 80-year-old building.”

DSS has almost completely outgrown its space.

“They’re pushing maximum capacity and in some cases they’re really pushing the limits of being able to provide services in the space they have,” said County Manager David Cotton.

Relocating the county departments to the old Wal-Mart location would provide thousands more feet of space.

The move may also provide the county with the best hope of finding a tenant for the empty big box structure. Competition to attract tenants is set to increase in Haywood County as the amount of empty space increases.

Goody’s clothing store is going out of business nationally and will leave behind a store front in a strip mall in Waynesville. Home Depot canceled plans at the last minute to open a new store in Waynesville, leaving a gaping site in a brand new big box retail complex where Super Wal-Mart moved to.

And in the wake of a cratering economy, most large retail chains aren’t in the market for new locations. Belk’s clothing store, currently located near Ingles, once expressed interest in relocating to the old Wal-Mart building to give it more space, but the company changed its mind.

“Right now, there’s not a whole lot of retailers that are looking to expand,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Everybody’s pretty cautious right now. The county’s interest (in the Wal-Mart property) is very encouraging.”

Old retail outlets or malls that have been repurposed as office space are known as greyfields, said Clasby, and it’s a phenomenon that’s happening around the country. In Buncombe County, commissioners are currently looking at converting the Biltmore Square Mall, which is for sale, into a county office building.

The relocation of county offices to the old Wal-Mart building isn’t definite, although county commissioners discussed the purchase in closed session. The county has asked Cotton to explore the possibility of the Wal-Mart site, but officials are investigating other options. Those include everything from renovating the current building used by DSS to finding a vacant parcel and building a new facility, Cotton said.

The economic downturn has tightened the county’s budget, which may lead some to question the county’s timing of buying or building a new facility. But the current economy has presented some good deals, said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“Now’s the time to take advantage of lower costs in loans, construction and purchase of property,” he said.

Money from the proposed federal stimulus package could help finance the purchase or construction of a facility, said Cotton, though it’s unclear how long it will take for the money to trickle down to local governments.

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