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.