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Haywood’s central office move contingent on fate of old hospital

fr schoolboardDSSHaywood County School officials could be ousted from their central office by early spring 2017 to make way for an affordable housing project.

Where the school system’s central office will relocate to — and who will pick up the tab — will unfold in negotiations between the school system and county leaders in coming months. 

Typically, it would be the school system’s responsibility to find and pay for a central office location. However Haywood County promised the school system rent-free office space over three decades ago, and has been making good on that promise ever since by putting them up in the “old hospital” in Waynesville.

The county now hopes to convert the old hospital into low-income apartments, rendering the school system without a home and posing a quandary when it comes to that long-ago promise of office space.

Since 2010, the county has been trying to unload the old hospital — an antiquated, run-down behemoth that dates back to the 1920s and ‘50s.

“It was known we would eventually have to move,” said Pat Smathers, attorney for the Haywood County School Board.

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The question, however, was when. Occasionally, county officials would traipse through the central office to show prospective buyers the building. But those prospects were few and far between, and at times, it seemed like the county would never find a taker. 

Nonetheless, the school board began a thorough hunt for a new central office location, vetting close to 30 sites over a four-year period in preparation for a move if need be.

“It has been a slow-going process because as of today the board has not been asked to vacate this facility,” Smathers said.

The school system’s exhaustive search of new locations for a central office is catalogued in notes from school board building and grounds committee meetings dating back to 2010.

From sundry vacant tracts to empty strip malls and old decommissioned schools, from Canton to Bethel to Hazelwood, the school board’s building and ground’s committee weighed the pros and cons and price tags of various options.

“Some sites were very quickly eliminated because the price people were asking was too great or the construction price was too great,” Smathers said.

Armed with what was still a fairly long “short list,” the school board has remained in a prolonged holding pattern, refreshing the list every so often but content to stay where they were as long as they could.

“It was all contingent on if the board was asked to move. And the county still hasn’t asked us to move,” Smathers said earlier this month. “If the project doesn’t go through, we don’t have any intention to move. They won’t move us from here unless their deal goes through.”

The lack of information coming out of the county has made it difficult for school officials to start making contingency plans.

This is the second time a project has been on the table to convert the old hospital into affordable apartments. Four years ago a similar project fell through. The potential developers decided it would cost too much. 

This time is different, however. Last fall, a game changer came along in the county’s quest to unload the old hospital. The state reinstated historic preservation tax credits and changed the eligibility criteria for low-income housing tax credits. Those two tax credits working in tandem could make a renovation of the old hospital financially viable after all. 

So the county courted Landmark Development, which has a robust portfolio of turning shuttered historic buildings into low-income housing, to take on the project.

Even though the county is essentially giving away the old hospital for nothing to facilitate the deal, it would be a win-win on several fronts, according to 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 landmark. Last but not least, the county would rid itself of a costly maintenance burden. 

However, there are a limited number of low-income housing tax credits available statewide each year, and projects must go through a rigorous, competitive selection process.

The county won’t know until mid-August whether the project will be selected for the tax credits, but county leaders believe the chances are quite good, very good in fact, based on preliminary ranking. 

“We will not find out until August if the tax credits and other pre-requisites for the project to go forward will occur,” County Manager Ira Dove said.

If the pieces fall into place, the school system would have until spring 2017 to be out. As for where they will go?

“We are exploring options and discussing what will happen if the project moves forward as we hope,” Dove said.

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