The county had been struggling to find a taker for the antiquated and functionally-obsolete building for three years, but to no avail. With both triumph and relief, county officials announced a plan this week to unload the hulking, five-story brick behemoth that most recently housed the Department of Social Services to a private firm that specializes in affordable housing developments.
The old hospital on the edge of Waynesville — dating to the 1920s and ‘50s — would be gutted and transformed into one- and two-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors.
The county will actually pay the housing development firm $250,000 to rid itself of the old hospital.
While the county has to pay the firm to take the building off its hands, the proposal is a win-win on five fronts, according David Francis, the county’s special project director.
It would provide much-needed affordable housing for seniors, aid with community revitalization, generate property tax revenue for the county and preserve a historic community icon. Last but not least, the county would rid itself of a maintenance burden.
“The cost of upkeep for the building has become a significant expense to the county over the years,” Francis said.
The building housed the county DSS for more than three decades. Amid mounting maintenance costs, environmental issues and cramped quarters, county leaders were faced with a reckoning: spend millions on a massive renovation to modernize the building or move out.
The county moved out in 2012. Since then, what to do with the old building has been a conundrum.
“We have discussed numerous options, from giving it away to demolition of the entire site,” Francis said.
It would cost the county $700,000 to tear it down, and the community would lose a landmark of historic significance.
“Most old hospitals of this nature are intrinsically important because they served the community for all those years. People were born there and died there,” said Ted Alexander with the N.C. Historic Preservation Foundation.
Putting it back into use is clearly a good thing for the county, he said.
“It will increase the tax base, as well as preserve a historic building, as well as provide housing,” Alexander said.
But the county couldn’t find anyone interested in it, even when offered up for free. While it’s steel construction is solid as a rock structurally, there wasn’t any interest in a building that big, that old and in need of total gutting to turn it into something, Francis said.
As the years ticked by, the county has been saddled with upkeep to prevent the building from falling into total disrepair.
“We’ve been spending $119,000 a year to maintain the building and that is only going to deteriorate more as time goes on,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.
When Francis was named to the new position of special project director for the county a year ago — a job that involves undesirable issues like dealing with contamination seeping from the old landfill — doing something about the old hospital was among the top priorities assigned to him.
The county has been spending $75,000 a year on utilities alone.
“We have to keep it climatized so it doesn’t totally fall down around itself,” said Dale Burris, county facility and maintenance director. “If we didn’t maintain the integrity of the building, when and if someone came along looking to revitalize it, it wouldn’t be worth anything. I am glad it can be repurposed.”
The county already spent $200,000 on a new roof to stave off water damage. More repair costs, from asbestos removal to window replacement, would soon be in the cards.
County leaders lauded Burris for his diligence to keep building up while they hunted for a taker.
“Folks who have come through and looked at the building have been thoroughly impressed at how Dale has kept it in shape. In other places, they see buildings that have just been abandon completely,” Francis said.
The development firm carrying out the project, the Landmark Group, has a long history of building and managing affordable housing complexes throughout the state and Southeast. Its construction portfolio includes 85 housing projects totaling $425 million.
The vast majority involved shuttered historic buildings.
It has converted dozens of old closed-down hospitals, closed mills and schools with no other viable purpose into low-income apartment complexes.
“We believe in appreciating your communities and contributing to its revitalization,” said John Stiltner, director of construction management for the Winston-Salem-based firm.
Landmark stays on as the management company for the housing complex, with more than 3,500 units across all its properties today.
A critical partner in the project is the N.C. Historic Preservation Foundation.
It, too, has a long list of success stories, some cut from the same cloth as the old hospital project in Haywood. Landmark and the Preservation Foundation routinely partner to accomplish the dual goals of saving historic buildings while creating low-income housing stock.
One of their recent joint projects was converting an old hospital in Gastonia, which had fallen into a forlorn state of decay, into low-income senior apartments.
The Preservation Foundation will serve as a critical middle man to facilitate the property transfer from the county to Landmark — a transaction with several moving parts and fancy footwork.
First, the county will transfer the old hospital to the N.C. Historic Preservation Foundation. It will in turn attach stipulations to the deed ensuring the building’s preservation. The building will then be flipped to the Landmark Group with the protective covenants in place.
The county will initially get $200,000 for the sale of the property from Landmark.
But the county would then extend a $450,000 economic development grant to Landmark for carrying out the renovation project — resulting in a net payout by the county of $250,000.
Francis said the county will come out ahead, not only for the economic development benefits to the community or addition of low-income senior housing stock, but also by divesting itself of the building upkeep and the property taxes it will realize.
“Affordable housing for family’s seniors and veterans is a need in our county,” Francis said. “It would be an exciting addition.”