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Animal shelter planning to start in Jackson County

Jackson County’s 40-year-old animal shelter building is in sore need of replacement. SMN photo Jackson County’s 40-year-old animal shelter building is in sore need of replacement. SMN photo

Jackson County is facing a plethora of capital projects over the next several years, and a new animal shelter will be one of them following a consensus that emerged from a four-hour budget planning meeting Feb. 21.

Commissioners directed County Manager Don Adams to look at hiring an architect to come up with a design and estimated cost for the facility, to be located on the grounds of the Green Energy Park in Dillsboro. The design would be one of the first steps toward realizing a recently unveiled $12 million master plan that would deliver an innovation center, event space, improved traffic circulation, a walking path and a dog park in addition to the animal shelter. 

The existing animal shelter, located on Airport Road in Cullowhee, has long been in sorry shape and in need of replacement, but doing so has proven difficult. In 2016 commissioners created a task force to evaluate the needs and come up with a design, but the resulting $6 million proposal gave the board a case of sticker shock, and those plans never moved forward. The Green Energy Park master plan used $3 million as the placeholder cost for the shelter, and for some commissioners even that number seemed high. 

“I’m going to have a problem myself if we start talking about $3 million to build an animal shelter,” said Commissioner Boyce Deitz. 

“I feel like we need to be very good stewards of animals and be respectful of animals, but I also don’t believe they hold a higher place than humans, so to balance that I think I’m on the same page as Commissioner Deitz,” added Commissioner Gayle Woody. “I want something that is as cost-effective as possible but not anything extravagant.”

Adams cautioned commissioners that it could be difficult to build anything that meets the need and complies with legal requirements for much less than $3 million but assured them that the facility should come in well under the $6 million proposed in 2016. 

“I’m pretty positive we’re not going to be at $6 million, but honestly the $3 million or the $2-3 million, somewhere in there — I don’t know where it will be until we go through this process,” said Adams. 

McMahan, meanwhile, wondered whether the county should abandon the Airport Road facility completely. 

“What if we use it like an intake facility?” he asked. It could prove useful to process animals when they’re initially brought in and to do the required quarantines and evaluations before putting them up for adoption, McMahan said. 

While the design process for the animal shelter begins, the county will also be able to start on phase one of the Green Energy Park plan, which involves moving the staffed recycling center from its current location at the top of the 19-acre property, also relocating the kilns from their existing spot. 

The master plan calls for moving the recycling center down to a to-be-constructed pull-off along Haywood Road, something that would require building a 50-to-60-foot retaining wall. However, commissioners expressed interest in looking for a different location, citing the expense of building such a high retaining wall and a preference for putting the recycling center where the noise of trucks coming too and from it wouldn’t interfere with activities at the revamped Green Energy Park campus above. 

“We might could buy a piece of property out there cheaper than we can pay to have that other done back in that hole,” said Deitz. “Even if it cost the same amount we’d still be better off.”

The other commissioners seemed to agree with that point. 

The Green Energy Park project will be an expensive and long-term endeavor, but it’s far from being the only big-ticket item on the county’s to-do list. Construction will begin this year to renovate the old health department building, a project that’s expected to cost $8.4 million total, and next year the county plans to renovate the Jackson County Justice Center to improve court facilities there, a $1.5 million undertaking. 

When it comes to recreation projects, the county wants to install a pocket park in Whittier, expand greenways, revamp the Fairview recreation complex and consider whether to pursue public parks in Dillsboro and Cullowhee. The county’s Conservation, Parks and Recreation Fund has $1.6 million available for to fund projects between 2019 and 2021, Adams told commissioners. 

In addition to these county initiatives, commissioners must consider a hefty list of asks from Jackson County Schools. School officials presented the list at a joint meeting with commissioners Feb. 20, estimated to carry a total price tag of $20.8 million. 

Of those projects, about $15 million’s worth are tagged as long-term projects that the school system hopes to knock out in five to 10 years, but the remaining dollars are requested as soon as possible. The school system wants $2.5 million for security upgrades, implementing single-entry points and enclosed courtyards at its schools, and $250,000 to improve accessibility at the Smoky Mountain High School baseball field. It also requests that the county continue its $1.3 million capital funding level from 2018-19 for items such as maintenance and technology. 

There’s a possibility that an indoor pool could be added to the list of capital needs, though any construction money spent on that project wouldn’t be needed until years in the future and following a referendum vote. Commissioner Ron Mau said that he’d like to ask voters on the 2020 ballot whether they would support a bond to fund construction of a pool, with the understanding that their taxes may have to go up as well to pay for its operation. Mau said that he doesn’t necessarily want a pool, but he does want a vote. 

“I’m for the opportunity to let the people have their voice heard and let them decide,” he said. “Because that’s been the issue — give us the opportunity.”

Mau would also like to see the board investigate the possibility of building an indoor shooting range at the old Pepsi plant in Whittier to replace the environmentally problematic one at Southwestern Community College. 

Commissioners will continue to discuss the budget at work sessions throughout the coming months, with Adams expected to deliver a recommended budget at a regular meeting slated for 3 p.m. Tuesday, May 21. Subsequent work sessions may be held May 27-29, with a public hearing June 5 and final adoption scheduled for Tuesday, June 18. 

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