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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.

Close-up of a crumbling facility

Fire code violations, compromised client confidentiality, leaking roofs, freezing pipes, lack of energy efficiency, severely limited space, windows that won’t close...

The problems with the current DSS and health department facilities would take pages to list.

And the issues have not escaped unnoticed by the 12,000 residents — 20 percent of the Haywood County population — receiving services at DSS and nearly 10,000 residents regularly making their way to the health department each year.

Whether it’s the client whose confidential health information is heard by everyone nearby or those who routinely get stuck in ancient elevators, these flaws are no secret.

That’s especially the case now that the worsened economy has lead to increased usage of these county services.

Ira Dove, director of social services, asked commissioners last week if they would want to work in such a building or feel safe having their mother riding its broken-down elevator.

The current DSS building, located on the Old Asheville Highway between downtown and the roundabout, was originally a county hospital built in 1927. The portion that the DSS uses was added on in 1950.

Meanwhile the health department, found a mile further down the Old Asheville Highway across from Junaluska Elementary, is housed in a 54-year-old building.

Both facilities have difficulty keeping up with modern technology due to when they were built.

“Back when there was no computer — only typewriters,” said Dale Burris, the county’s facilities maintenance director.

Most commissioners have visited the facility and have found they could easily justify the need for action to taxpayers.

“I’d like to invite the public to come out and see that facility out there,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

The challenges of renovating the DSS building are many. An extensive renovation would be necessary. It would involve stripping down the interior to its structural skeleton and reworking the space to create efficiency.

DSS has no need for the old hospital’s wide corridors. And the old patient rooms are too big for one social service worker, yet too small for two.

Architects estimate the staff would have to be moved for an entire year as renovation took place.

The county would also face the added expense of dealing with the structure’s asbestos and lead-based paint issues.

The low ceilings would present major challenges for installing modern heating, venting and air conditioning.

An additional 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of space would be required to comply with state requirements.

The health department has insufficient parking for clients, especially during times of mass vaccinations, like flu shots.

“I think this is a lesson that all of us should learn,” said Curtis. “The better you take care of your facilities and your belongings, the better off you’re going to be in the long run.”

Haywood County nixes old Wal-Mart purchase

It looks like the Department of Social Services in Haywood County won’t be getting a new home after all. Haywood County commissioners decided against purchasing the old Wal-Mart building, which would have housed DSS as well as the health department, in a closed session last week (May 4).

“The commissioners decided that now is not the right time in light of everything else what we’ve had to do as a county in response to the global economic crisis,” said County Manager David Cotton.

County officials were seeking a USDA loan between $10 million and $11 million to fund the purchase and renovations to the building.

Finding a new home for DSS has long been on the county’s to-do list. The department is housed in a decrepit, crumbling old hospital, and is so cramped for space that some closets double as offices.

The old Wal-Mart would have been less expensive than building on a new site.

“In our capital improvements plan, we’d actually identified needing $20 million to $25 million to buy a piece of land and build from scratch,” Cotton said.

The old Wal-Mart purchase is not completely off the table, Cotton said. He said the company that owns the building, RBC Ventures, is still open to the idea of if county officials change their mind.

Angry residents call nuisance ordinance ‘a bunch of garbage’

A proposed Haywood County ordinance that prohibits various kinds of waste and junk was harshly criticized by speaker after speaker at a public hearing Monday (March 2).

The “Public Nuisance” ordinance prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junk cars to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to safeguard public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.

The ordinance drew more than one reference to communism.

“All of this is like something right out of Karl Marx’s handbook,” said Randy Burris, a Cruso resident. “We have drawn a line today — I will not surrender any more of my rights to any government.”

Russell McLean, a Waynesville resident and the first to speak, called the ordinance “unconstitutional.”

“It completely rips away property rights,” McLean said. “I can’t even have a lawnmower sitting in a shed unless it’s fully enclosed.”

Colin Edwards of Maggie Valley said the ordinance had some good intentions, but ultimately was too restrictive.

“Some things I can understand, like garbage piling up, but you can’t tell somebody what they can and can’t have on their land,” Edwards said.

Maggie Valley resident Burton Edwards said things that appear to be uselessly taking up space can have value to someone else.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he proclaimed. “If all you’ve got from your dad or granddad is a tractor that don’t run, that’s your heritage.”

The speakers professed an overwhelming live and let live attitude. That’s the way it’s traditionally been in Haywood County, they said, and if newcomers have a problem with that belief, they can take a hike.

“If people moves in here and they don’t like what they see, why don’t they move back out and leave us alone?” said Pauly Sidler of Canton.


Some support

The stiff opposition was a marked change from the official public hearing on the nuisance ordinance held two weeks before. Then, just a handful of speakers voiced messages of support for the ordinance.

Phyllis Brockman, a resident of the eastern end of the county, was one of the speakers. She hoped the ordinance would target the auto salvage yard near her property, where she witnesses mosquitoes and rats breeding in discarded tires.

“I believe that anybody should be able to do with their property what they want, up to the point where it begins to infringe on the rights and properties of their neighbors,” Brockman said.

Brockman’s neighbor, Noreen Langford, said she and others “have been held hostage in the community.”

Brockman asked that the ordinance have “an extraordinarily sharp set of teeth in it.”

Commissioners had few comments at the initial public hearing. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the speakers, “this ordinance is considerably stronger than we have now, and I think it will solve a lot of problems” near their properties.


Commissioners shy away

At the public hearing on Monday, however, Curtis said he wouldn’t support the ordinance.

“The way the draft is written now, there’s no way I could vote for it,” he said.

The rest of the board agreed with Curtis.

“I don’t think any of us support it in its present draft,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

Though many in the audience called for the county to drop the ordinance altogether, commissioners didn’t promise to do so. Instead, the board implored residents to attend the next planning board meeting to vent their concerns. That meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on March 23 in Haywood County Annex II.

Haywood County eyes old Wal-Mart shell for offices

A hulking space in the strip mall along U.S. 74 in Clyde that has sat vacant since the departure of Wal-Mart could get a new tenant — the Haywood County departments of Health and Social Services.

A new building to house both departments is the next project on the county’s list of capital improvements. A larger and more conducive space for DSS, which is currently housed in the county’s decades-old former hospital, has been a particular priority. The county is currently shelling out almost $30,000 per year to maintain the cramped, run-down DSS building.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the building is not adequate,” said County Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It’s in disrepair and it’s very expensive to maintain. You’re dealing with an almost 80-year-old building.”

DSS has almost completely outgrown its space.

“They’re pushing maximum capacity and in some cases they’re really pushing the limits of being able to provide services in the space they have,” said County Manager David Cotton.

Relocating the county departments to the old Wal-Mart location would provide thousands more feet of space.

The move may also provide the county with the best hope of finding a tenant for the empty big box structure. Competition to attract tenants is set to increase in Haywood County as the amount of empty space increases.

Goody’s clothing store is going out of business nationally and will leave behind a store front in a strip mall in Waynesville. Home Depot canceled plans at the last minute to open a new store in Waynesville, leaving a gaping site in a brand new big box retail complex where Super Wal-Mart moved to.

And in the wake of a cratering economy, most large retail chains aren’t in the market for new locations. Belk’s clothing store, currently located near Ingles, once expressed interest in relocating to the old Wal-Mart building to give it more space, but the company changed its mind.

“Right now, there’s not a whole lot of retailers that are looking to expand,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Everybody’s pretty cautious right now. The county’s interest (in the Wal-Mart property) is very encouraging.”

Old retail outlets or malls that have been repurposed as office space are known as greyfields, said Clasby, and it’s a phenomenon that’s happening around the country. In Buncombe County, commissioners are currently looking at converting the Biltmore Square Mall, which is for sale, into a county office building.

The relocation of county offices to the old Wal-Mart building isn’t definite, although county commissioners discussed the purchase in closed session. The county has asked Cotton to explore the possibility of the Wal-Mart site, but officials are investigating other options. Those include everything from renovating the current building used by DSS to finding a vacant parcel and building a new facility, Cotton said.

The economic downturn has tightened the county’s budget, which may lead some to question the county’s timing of buying or building a new facility. But the current economy has presented some good deals, said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“Now’s the time to take advantage of lower costs in loans, construction and purchase of property,” he said.

Money from the proposed federal stimulus package could help finance the purchase or construction of a facility, said Cotton, though it’s unclear how long it will take for the money to trickle down to local governments.

Macon free dental clinic eyes expansion

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Macon County’s Molar Roller is on the move in a forward direction. The mobile dental clinic, which travels from school to school providing service to low-income children has hired a full-time dentist and is negotiating to add on a second dentist that would enable the program to begin serving adults on a non-emergency basis.

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