Old Wal-Mart retrofit for county offices to begin soon

Remodeling work to the old Wal-Mart building in Haywood County could begin within weeks after commissioners approved a contract to transform the space into county offices.

The board heard from Scott Donald of Padgett & Freeman Architects, who are spearheading the revamp of the building. The now-empty storefront is due to be repurposed into headquarters for the department of social services and its 143 employees, as well as the health department, the planning department and building inspections, among others.

Architects were instructed to redesign the project after the county couldn’t get contractors to offer bids that were close enough to their budget. After cutting some features, they called for new estimates from contractors again late last year.

Donald reported that, after pulling down all the “low-hanging fruit” they could find, they’ve negotiated a price of $5.398 million for the remodel, which, he said, comes in around $9,000 under budget. The total project cost, including architect fees and purchase of the building is $12.5 million.

The board unanimously approved a motion to award the contract to Murray Construction of Monroe, which means that Donald and county staff can hold pre-construction meetings as soon as USDA officials, who are providing financing, come to have a look at the property later this month.

According to Donald, construction on the project could be underway as early as the first week of February. He also noted that the contractor was confident in their ability to finish the job in eight months, a month sooner than the plan called for. This would recoup some of the time that was lost when the project was rebid.

DSS is currently housed in the old county hospital, but the aging building was falling apart. Commissioners decided it would be cheaper to move into a new space than bring the old hospital up to par.

Haywood chooses contractor for Wal-Mart project

Clyde’s old Wal-Mart is now on track to get a new life after Haywood County commissioners voted Monday to sign a contract with Murray Construction of Monroe for the renovations. The project had stalled earlier this fall after the first round of bids came in millions of dollars over the $4.7 million budget.

After scaling back the project and putting it back out to bid, the county got back nine estimates that are almost all within $1 million of the budgeted cost. The final winning bid was just over $5.2 million and was only $14,000 below the next closest competitor.

Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects, who are leading the project, said that he thought the bids were all competitive and fair.

“We were able to bring down the project almost $2.1 million,” Donald told commissioners, who then voted unanimously to begin negotiating immediately.

The space will be home to the county’s Department of Social Services and health department, who will soon vacate their home at the county’s old hospital.

Haywood rolls back price of Wal-Mart renovation

Haywood County commissioners are reining in their grand plans for Waynesville’s old Wal-Mart, working with designers and almost everyone else involved in the project to try and get it close to the projected budget.

At a work session last week, commissioners heard from Padgett and Freeman, the Asheville architects in charge of the project, who suggested cuts in everything from plumbing to decorative masonry.

“We basically went in with the county manager’s office and the staff and the users that are moving into the facility and started with them on how to redefine the scope of work,” said Scott Donald, principal architect with the firm.

Donald said that, after getting bids for the project that were astronomically higher than the budget, a decision was taken to adjust the project’s scope, slashing everything that could go without affecting the building’s functionality or getting rid of programs or jobs.

“It’s stripped as far as we can strip it without redesigning it again, and that would mean taking out programs or leaving the departments behind, leaving them where they are,” said Donald. “But I don’t think that’s an option either. We’ve cut as much as we know how without actually scaling back the floor plan.”

For their part, commissioners were happy to hear about any measures that would shave off the $2 million needed to bring the project within budget.

“This is one of those cooperative efforts,” said Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get it within budget, to make it to where it’s more efficient, more cost-effective. All the staff understand that and, as Mr. Kirkpatrick (chairman of the board of commissioners) said, as long as its functional, that’s what matters.”

Part of the problem, however, is the size of the building itself. Big boxes aren’t easy to partially renovate, and while Donald and his team have suggested leaving portions of the 115,000 square-foot space un-renovated, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make large, wholesale cuts to the amount of revamped space without getting rid of jobs or programs that are slated to be housed at the facility.

“It’s a big project for very little money,” said Donald. “It’s a lot of square footage that we’re trying to renovate and the budget just isn’t there for that size of space.

The other large hurdle, however, is the financing. Most similar projects would be phased in, allowing gradual financing and more room — and time — for slight budgetary tweaks. But as a condition of the USDA loans the county secured to fund the renovations, phases are out. It must be done all at once, which also presents a challenge to architects and commissioners, who are forced to work with what they have at the outset.

Among the suggested cuts are technical savings, like plumbing and electrical work that could be done differently for a reduced cost. But aesthetic choices, like $25,000 of extra stonework on the building’s exterior, were pulled as well. Donald and his team have found savings in every possible corner of the project, he said: $25,000 for synthetic stucco instead of the real deal, $60,000 for axing a tongue-and-groove ceiling that would require a costly extra sprinkler system, $300,000 for using vinyl flooring instead of linoleum, and the list goes on.

In total, architects project that instead of the low bid being around $7.2 million, it should be closer to $5.1 million, only about $400,000 over the $4.7 million budget.  

They accepted information from everyone who had a hand in the job: county commissioners, the county manager’s office, engineers, subcontractors and even the original bidders. In the end, they came out with around 23 pages of recommendations, none of which the commissioners took issue with. In fact, they asked Donald if he and his team could look into pumping more savings out of the project.

Although Donald said he would look into it, he’s skeptical about what further cost reductions can be found.

“They were wanting us to look at even further items and we’ve done that,” Donald said. “We’re getting to the point now where it’s just that not much money is involved with small changes. It has to be something big to get the big money out of it, and that’s the hard part.”

As for the timing of the project, the need for a re-bid will only put completion between seven and eight weeks off schedule. That timeline was somewhat aided by the fact that it was operating around a month ahead of schedule and assumes that the bidding and contracting process won’t have to leap any more hurdles along the way.

When completed, the building will house the county’s Department of Social Services and Health Department, which have long been awaiting relocation from their current, aging homes elsewhere in the county.

Commissioners have not yet voted on the measures, but have a mandatory pre-bid conference with potential contractors scheduled for Nov. 17, with bids due Dec. 9. The projected completion date for the project is September 2011.

Wal-Mart renovation to be scaled back

The renovation of Haywood County’s former Wal-Mart will be delayed as architects revise the project to match its budget.

Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects, who are planning the renovations for the now-county-owned building, told Haywood County commissioners at their Monday meeting that all 10 bids for construction on the project had come in over budget.

In a letter to Facilities and Maintenance Director Dale Burris, Donald estimated that at the lowest bidder’s price the total project would run $2.9 million over estimates, when including increased costs for furniture and plumbing problems. The county had budgeted $5.8 million.

Donald told commissioners that, after meetings with county staff, his recommendation was to take another look at the project. He recommended that since the projected overrun was so large, it would be best to adjust the project’s scope to fit within the budget.

“I feel like the prices were good,” said Donald. “I think we just have a little too much scope for the project, so we’re scaling it back.”

Commissioners agreed with the recommendation and voted unanimously to reject all bids and ask Padgett and Freeman to submit new drawings by early November. Commissioners plan to take new bids in early December.

The building was purchased by commissioners earlier this year with funding from a USDA rural development loan. It will eventually be home to the Haywood Department of Social Services, Health and Central Permitting Offices, whose long-time building was quickly becoming decrepit.

The board also voted to approve contracts with the three lowest bidders for Haywood Community College’s new Creative Arts Building, waterline upgrade and renovation of the General Education Building.

Possible uses for the former Bargains building were also discussed, including a dedicated senior center. The building is located next door to the county office building on Russ Avenue.

“We’ve recognized the need for a centralized senior services center,” said County Manager David Cotton. “We also evaluated the space needs specifically for the elections department, parks and recreation and the wellness center.”

However, the county has also applied for federal appropriations funding to create a senior center and have heard no word on the status of that application, so a decision on what the building will house was postponed until a later date.

Radical makeover

A major remodeling job to convert the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Haywood County Department of Social Services could get underway by November. This rendering by Asheville firm Padgett & Freeman Architects shows how the dreary big-box storefront will get a new façade more fitting with the mountains. Contractors are now bidding on the $12.5 million project. The 115,000-square-foot superstore will also serve as home for Haywood’s health department, planning and erosion control, building inspections and environmental health. Commissioners bought the Wal-Mart primarily to move DSS from its crumbling building, which would have required millions to fix up. In August, the county locked down a 40-year rural development loan, funded with federal stimulus money through the USDA, to pay for the project.

Old Waynesville hospital could be converted to affordable housing

Haywood County officials foresee the historic hospital in Waynesville one day being transformed into affordable or senior housing.

“That would be my vision,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Something might show up that we haven’t thought of, but affordable housing is definitely needed.”

The mammoth brick building occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of outside space. The Department of Social Services is moving out next fall, and the county is seeking proposals on what to do with the building once vacated.

Developers have until late October to propose a new use for the hospital, but housing of some sort appears to be the commissioners’ preference.

“I felt that would be the highest and best use for that structure,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. According to Ensley, at least one developer has already looked at converting the building into affordable housing.

“I wouldn’t have any objection,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “We always need some housing.”

The Department of Social Services will relocate in fall 2011 to the site of the former Wal-Mart store in Clyde. Commissioners decided it’d be more cost-effective to buy and renovate the deserted superstore rather than fix up the crumbling hospital.

The old hospital was originally built in 1927 and expanded in the 1950s. County officials have said it would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate it.

Commissioners have complained that the building will need a host of major renovations including a new roof, new windows and rewiring to accommodate the latest technology.

As the first county-owned hospital in North Carolina, however, the building may be eligible to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places, which comes with tax credits for renovations.

“I think the historic tax credits are what really makes it attractive for developers,” said Ensley.


A time of great need

Mountain Projects, a community action agency in Haywood and Jackson counties, may be on the ground assisting any developer that steps in.

“If they choose to do affordable housing, at that point, we’ll get involved,” said Patsy Dowling, director of Mountain Projects.

The agency can guide developers through the highly competitive process of receiving low-income housing tax credits from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.

Earlier this year, Mountain Projects helped launch Smokey Meadows, an affordable apartment complex in Canton. It filled up in record time.

Dowling is well-aware of the struggles that the working class faces in tracking down affordable housing, especially in recent times. She has seen the waiting list for affordable housing assistance backlogged for as long as three years.

“Our waiting list got so long we had to close it and stop taking applications,” said Dowling. “It’s back open, but the wait is tremendous …hundreds and hundreds of people in Haywood County are on the waiting list.”

Mountain Projects is helpless to help even those who walk in with their suitcases with nowhere to go.

While neighbors may be wary about living near low-income housing, Dowling said a comprehensive background check is done and clients must sign a strict 17-page lease.

“In these apartments, it’s not just anybody,” said Dowling.

Ensley agreed that bringing affordable housing to the area would only bring benefits.

“I don’t think that low-income or moderate-income housing is a negative at all,” said Ensley.

Another bonus is that the building would be put back on the tax rolls, Ensley and Dowling said. Affordable housing complexes not only pay taxes, but also create jobs.

If a developer takes on the task of renovating the old hospital, the central office for Haywood County Schools, which occupies one small section of the building, would likely be uprooted.

As commissioners await proposals, Curtis said the last thing he wants to see is the hospital destroyed.

“It’d be nice if we could save what we could of it,” Curtis said.

“A lot of our people were born there,” said Upton, who worked in the 1927 building while serving as school superintendent.

Medicaid applicant victim of financial theft by DSS worker

An elderly man was swindled out of $5,500 by a Department of Social Services employee in Swain County, according to an investigation by the Bryson City police department.

As nursing home bills for his wife mounted, the man had sought help from DSS worker Nicole Warren in hopes of qualifying for Medicaid.

Warren has been charged with three counts of obtaining property under false pretenses and one count of felony conversion, or theft, by the Bryson City Police

Warren had told the man — who wants to stay anonymous and whom authorities refused to name — that he and his wife had too much money in the bank to qualify.

It isn’t uncommon to ask Medicaid applicants with too much money to “spend down” their assets on valid household expenses before they can qualify. In this case, however, Warren proposed some rather unorthodox solutions.

According to Bryson City Det. Sgt. Diane Wike, Warren first asked the man to give her a $3,000 loan. He felt pressured to relent.

“He felt like if he didn’t give her the loan, he might not get the Medicaid for the wife,” said Wike.

Later, Warren asked him to “spend down” a further $2,500. While he proposed making a donation to St. Jude hospital, Warren suggested an alternative charity: the N.C. Social Services Association. She told him to make out a check and she would make sure the organization got it. Instead, Warren tried unsuccessfully to cash it herself, an attempt that was caught on bank surveillance.

Warren went back to the man, insisting that he make the donation in cash instead, according to police reports. The elderly man eventually conceded but demanded a receipt. Warren wrote a handwritten receipt in which she scribbled her name illegibly.

He then asked for an affirmation on letterhead, which Warren wrote using the official DSS letterhead.

“She didn’t sign her name to that one,” said Wike.

Warren also asked for the man to transfer property deeds to her name, but he refused.

The man reported Warren to DSS in late May, and the attorney for DSS in turn reported it to the Bryson City Police Department in mid-June.

Wike said Warren confessed almost instantly.

“Her explanation was that she got in a bind and needed money,” said Wike. “She had a clean record. She’s never been charged with anything.”“

Tammy Cagle, the Swain County DSS director, did not return calls, and Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain County DSS, said that he could not comment on any “ongoing personnel issues or certain issues involving law enforcement.”

Abuse of the elderly

This particular case undoubtedly qualifies as elder abuse, according to Kim Gardner, elder abuse program coordinator for the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance.

“It’s financial exploitation,” said Gardner. “She used her power and influence to obtain $5,500 from this man fraudulently.”

Gardner suspected the Bryson City Police did not include specific elder abuse charges in Warren’s indictments because its penalties are less severe. There is no mandatory jail time though probation can be given.

“That’s probably why they went with the stronger charges,” said Gardner, adding that she’d like to see the charges changed. “We need more teeth in the elder abuse laws.”

To qualify as elder abuse, the victim must be over 60. Though Gardner warned the elderly to be cautious with their money, she doesn’t think they should be afraid to ask for assistance at DSS.

“I know a lot of people have negative thoughts about DSS from time to time,” said Gardner. “[But this is] an unusual occurrence. They’re there to help people.”

Design under way for old Wal-Mart renovations

The deserted Wal-Mart near Clyde will be hardly recognizable once Haywood County is through with its makeover of the megastore.

Sunlight will stream in through 30 skylights scattered across the low-slung ceiling of the former big-box store. A new metal roof will cover the front 25 feet of the building, with a mountain vernacular style entrance supplanting the once mundane building facade.

The made-over building will be a far cry from the cramped and crumbling offices that currently house the Department of Social Services and Health Department, which will relocate to the new site.

A $6.1 million renovation will transform the once gaping interior space into “little communities,” according to project architect Scott Donald with Asheville-based Padgett and Freeman Architects, PA.

The renovated space will include a shared entrance lobby, health clinic, Meals on Wheels kitchen, dental clinic, W.I.C. area, along with offices for more than 200 social workers.

Also included in the preliminary design is space for a central permitting office, including planning, erosion, building inspections and environmental health.

County commissioners voted to purchase the vacant big-box for $6.6 million in January. Architects estimate the renovations will cost another $6.1 million to retrofit the nearly 100,000 square feet of space.

Plans are still in the early stages. Commissioners will sign off on a design by fall and send the project out to bid. Construction could be completed by summer 2011.

Commissioners say the old Wal-Mart is a bargain to solve a problem that could no longer be ignored. DSS was fed up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes and cramped office space, as well as the lack of space and confidentiality at their offices, which date as far back as the 1920s. Facility inspections landed Haywood’s DSS building in the bottom 1 percent of 70 DSS facilities throughout the state.

Residents challenge price tag of new DSS building in Haywood

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?”

Haywood to buy old Wal-Mart to replace aging DSS, Health Department buildings

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.

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