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.
Dems meet to pick Sheriff Alexander’s successor
Democratic officials in Haywood County are gearing up to choose a successor to outgoing Haywood County Sheriff Tom Alexander, who will retire from his post of more than 22 years on Feb. 2.
Sheriffs are usually elected to office, but since Alexander still has two years left in his term, the county’s Democratic Executive Committee must appoint a replacement.
Alexander said he had considered retiring before winning his sixth term in 2006, but wanted to stay on through the completion of the county’s law enforcement and justice center.
The committee is taking resumes for the sheriff post until 5 p.m. on Jan. 21.
Haywood County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Jones said he’s already been contacted by several people who want the sheriff position, but was unsure as of press time how many candidates will vie for the spot (a list of candidates will be available on the Smoky Mountain News Web site after the resume deadline).
“I’ve been contacted by several individuals, but there’s a big difference between contacting and actually doing it,” he said. “We know there will be more than one or two. It’s going to be very interesting.”
The candidates will appear at a forum from 1 to 3 p.m. the following Saturday, Jan. 24, where they’ll state their case for why they should be the next sheriff and field questions from the Democratic Executive Committee.
The executive committee is comprised of an assortment of county Democrats. The group includes all Democratic elected officials — everyone from mayors to the tax collector to the register of deeds — plus the party’s chairs and vice chairs from each of the 31 precincts.
Jones said the committee is taking the responsibility of selecting a new sheriff very seriously.
“We’re charged with electing a person who is capable and qualified of being sheriff for all the citizens of Haywood County,” Jones said. “This is a heavy responsibility, and not something to be taken lightly. We look at it with a heavy sense of duty.”
The executive committee will vote for a sheriff at its Feb. 7 meeting. A candidate must receive 50 percent of the votes plus one additional vote to win election. The committee will hold as many votes as needed until one candidate emerges with the majority.
The executive committee will recommend the winning candidate to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. If commissioners take action and approve the choice at their next possible meeting, the county could have a new sheriff in place as early as Feb. 16.
Chief Deputy Bobby Suttles, the sheriff’s office second in command, will take the helm of the department in the interim between Alexander’s retirement and the selection of a new sheriff.
Alexander’s retirement comes amid allegations that he may be involved in the video poker investigation that has already sent former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford to prison. A witness during Medford’s trial mentioned the Haywood County sheriff being paid off, and at least two subpoenas have been issued for information about Alexander and the sheriff’s department. No charges have been filed.
End in sight for cost overruns on Haywood courthouse
As renovation of Haywood County’s historic courthouse drags on, the county continues to tack on tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs over and beyond the project budget.
Last month, county commissioners approved an additional $45,000 in rent and phone lines for the temporary building housing county offices. That brings the total cost overruns to $262,923.
Included in that figure are $78,365 in consulting costs and $143,558 in attorney fees, both stemming from the county’s firing of the project’s original contracting firm and subsequent litigation.
The renovation of the courthouse is now 65 percent complete, and county officials think they’ll be able to stay within budget until the project is completed in April, said County Manager David Cotton.
The project was supposed to have been finished in June 2008, but stalled when the county fired KMD Construction, the contracting firm overseeing the renovations, on May 5. At the time, the project was behind schedule and the county wasn’t happy with the work KMD had done.
Work on the courthouse didn’t resume for several months until August while the county hashed out the details of finding a new contractor.
The search for a new firm fell on the shoulders of the bonding company the county used to insure the project. Though the bonding company hired another firm — Nicholson Professional Consulting — to provide direct supervision for the project, the labor is still being provided through KMD Construction. County commissioners approved the rehiring of KMD in a 4-1 vote.
Meanwhile, the county has been embroiled in a series of litigations against KMD, accusing the company of shoddy work and an inability to follow a timeline that caused the project to fall months behind schedule.
When finished, the courthouse will house various county services, including Veteran’s Affairs, Register of Deeds, Land Records, Geographical Information Systems, Tax Administration, Human Resources, Information Technology, Finance, and County Administration, according to Cotton.
Haywood doctors open for business
The first stop for sick people in Haywood County should still be their local doctor.
Haywood hospital begins recertification process
By Julia Merchant
With its CEO gone and a new consulting group on board, Haywood Regional Medical Center is working around the clock to regain its Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Music to their ears: Local students earn high marks in national performance competition
By Michael Beadle
Watch out Broadway. Get Carnegie Hall ready.
TDA chair says pot charge no problem
The chair of Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority says a misdemeaor marijuana charge against the organization’s executive director will not affect her job status.
Watershed represents diverse ecosystems
Norm Christensen told the Waynesville Watershed Advisory Board (WAB), representatives from the town and a few interested onlookers that despite heavy logging in the past the forest ecosystems in Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed were, “remarkably healthy” and “remarkably intact.” Christensen, founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and currently professor of ecology at Duke, spoke to the WAB at its regular meeting Jan. 10.
Haywood fields to get artificial turf
School official will use lottery proceeds to install artifical turf at the Pisgah and Tuscola high school stadiums, it was announced at a county commissioners meeting on Jan. 7.
Change is on the way for Howell Mill Road: DOT expansion project will carve through the heart of community
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
The widening of Howell Mill Road in Waynesville will take years to complete, cost millions of dollars and displace residents who live along the thoroughfare.
The two-lane road starts at Russ Avenue next to Rite Aid, winds through a residential area, passes the Waynesville Recreation Center and ends at Business 19 close to the Haywood Community College High Tech Center. The DOT project aims to widen the entire road and install sidewalks that will provide pedestrian access to the recreation center and a turning lane that will help alleviate backups and accidents on the increasingly busy stretch.
The town of Waynesville and DOT recently agreed on Alternative 2, which calls for a sidewalk to be put in on one side of the road and a middle turning lane at a cost of $12.5 million. The other proposed alternative, number four, would have consisted of the installation of a median down the center of Howell Mill and a multi-use path separated from the road by a ditch at a cost of $14 million. At one time, the town hoped the multi-use path would be connected to its greenway system.
“The town likes Alternative 2 because of the sidewalk, and DOT likes it because it’s a million cheaper,” explained Town Engineer Fred Baker.
Additionally, Baker said, the multi-use path would have cost the town more, since it would require additional right of way to be purchased. The cost would have been $590,000 rather than the $270,000 to only build a sidewalk.
“We were really pushing to do a good pedestrian component to the road. Right now, the best we can do is putting a sidewalk in. At least there will be a pedestrian pathway,” Baker said.
The DOT will start purchasing right of way in 2009, according to District Engineer Jamie Wilson. Five residences and two businesses will be displaced. Construction will begin in 2011 and take two and a half years to complete.
“One thing that takes a long time is buying people’s property,” Baker said.
“There’s people losing their property that aren’t happy. That’s one thing DOT has to balance — the need for the public at large to be able to move about in a community,” he said.
Uprooted and moved
Eighty-two year old Laura Gunter is one resident of Howell Mill Road that will have to be relocated. Gunter has lived in her house for 31 years with Dewey, her 59-year-old mentally handicapped son.
“We hate to give it up, because it’s been home,” she said.
Gunter said she understands that sometimes these things happen, but admits it will be hard to leave.
“It would be bad to have to jerk up and move, but the state’s going to build roads eventually,” she said.
Gunter has another son in the area who will be in charge of talking to the DOT on her behalf. She says her son Dewey, though used to his surroundings, won’t be bothered by the move — and she’ll continue to care for him somewhere else.
“I’ll tend to him as long as I can,” she said.
Gunter is far from alone in her dilemma. According to Andy Simpson, relocation coordinator for the DOT, 231 owners and tenants were relocated due to DOT projects in 2006.
The DOT offers as much assistance as possible to the people they relocate.
“We have to go out and find three comparable properties to what they live in or rent,” Simpson explained from his Raleigh office. “Our right of way agents work very closely with Realtors because they know what the housing market is. We have to inspect all the properties to make sure they’re decent, safe and sanitary.”
The DOT provides transportation to look for housing, provides referrals, sets residents up with Realtors, provides information on mortgages, and pays most of the closing costs of the new property.
It’s not always possible, though, to get a property near the one that has been acquired as right of way. This is a particular concern for Gunter, who says she would miss her proximity to the recreation center, where she walks one mile every day.
“It really depends on the housing market in the area. We start out as close to their house as possible. If they’re in a subdivision, we look at that subdivision, or we look down the street or at side streets, then we go further out to find comparables. In rural areas, we can’t necessarily find other houses similar to those, and they can be up to 15 miles away,” Simpson said.