SALISBURY — When Charlie Brown asked Lucy Van Pelt what she really wanted for Christmas, the ambitious “Peanuts” cartoon character replied, “real estate.”
If they wanted to, Rowan County taxpayers could grant her wish many times over.
The county owns more than 1,300 acres of property valued at nearly $66 million, according to its records.
Most of this property is used for public buildings, park land or parking lots. But the county also owns real estate that it’s not using.
“The county owns property for economic development, for expansion of the airport, for (the owner’s) failure to pay taxes and we’re trying to sell it, or because it’s a property we can’t sell because it doesn’t have any value,” said County Manager Gary Page.
The county acquires some properties through foreclosures, Page said. Often, these are vacant lots that can’t hold a septic system because they don’t “perc,” or drain water from the soil, and developers abandon them.
Some may still be marketable, and they are declared surplus by county commissioners.
The county lists about a dozen surplus properties on its website, along with photos and bidding instructions.
Jim Sides, the new chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said there are several other pieces of property that he wants to consider selling in the next year.
“I think sometime very soon, we’re going to take a hard look at all of the properties we have and what we want to do with them,” Sides said.
He said he’s not as concerned about the smaller, cheaper properties, because they’re not really a drain on the county. But larger land parcels are costing the county valuable property taxes, and vacant buildings have maintenance and upkeep costs attached to them.
“I’m not interested in the county being in the property business,” Sides said. “I prefer to sell everything we have that is not needed for current and future expansion purposes. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Sides said a developer recently bought some county-owned land in Cleveland. Lately, though, the county has had a hard time selling property even at three-quarters of its value because of the economy.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he thinks there are some “logical uses” for the county’s spare real estate, but private buyers might not invest in them until the recession has further rebounded.
He agreed that the county should do what it can to sell off its unused property.
“Basically, unless a property is doing a government service, it is not doing the citizens of Rowan County any good to hold onto the property,” Mitchell said. “Anything we’re not using or have no plans to use in the reasonably near future, we need to at least make it available to dispose of it in some way, shape or form.”
Commissioners Mike Caskey and Jon Barber agreed.
“If we’re not using it, we better to go ahead and sell it and have some money to do some things with, have it on the tax rolls,” Caskey said.
Old DSS buildings
Sides said the first properties he wants to find a use for, even though they haven’t been declared surplus, are two former Department of Social Services buildings.
One on Mahaley Avenue used to house the county’s Child Protective Services division. It’s worth $819,000, and as private property it would generate $5,098 each year in county taxes at current rates. The city of Salisbury would get another $5,220.
“We’ve been trying to decide whether we want to sell it or move the Board of Elections into it, because they are limited in space,” Page said. “It’s probably bigger than what the elections office needs, but it’s a good location.”
The county used the building as a one-stop early voting site this past fall. Now that the election is over, Page said he thinks commissioners will soon decide its future.
“When we do our analysis, we might decide to try to market it and sell it to a doctor, a dentist or whatever,” he said. “It is convenient to the hospital.”
Mitchell said any private uses will be determined by the market, but he agreed that the building would make a great doctor’s office.
Sides said the hospital itself could buy the property if it wants, or someone could purchase it and rent out office space.
The county also owns another former Department of Social Services building on West Innes Street valued at nearly $1.4 million. Under a private owner, it would generate $8,660 per year for the county and $8,867 for the city of Salisbury at current tax rates.
“We talked about trying to sell it, but we also looked at that property as maybe some kind of interim for the schools with their central office,” Page said. “We offered that to the schools maybe two or three years ago as a central office. We knew that it wasn’t going to consolidate them, but it would give them a place to move to in the short term, maybe three or four years, until they could build a new central office.”
Sides said he has also talked with some people about using the building for RowanWorks Economic Development, “so that they would have a place to start up incubator businesses.”
If the schools locate elsewhere and no other use is found, Page said, the county will look into marketing and selling the building.
Property with potential
The county isn’t in a hurry to get rid of all of the vacant property it owns. In some cases, it’s buying more.
Page said the county has been using grant money to purchase land around the airport for a planned runway expansion. That will eventually allow the airport to grow and create more economic development, he said.
Rowan County also owns land at two corporate parks, Summit Corporate Center and Speedway Business Park.
RowanWorks Director Robert Van Geons.
“There can be a number of opportunities in our region to use properties and even buildings to attract new private sector growth,” Van Geons said.
He said that since 2000, companies who bought that public land have paid the county $4 million in property taxes, after incentives were taken out.
RowanWorks also has been charged with marketing a 114-acre property along Heilig Road. At a listed tax value of $2.6 million, it’s the priciest parcel currently owned by the county. The land alone could bring in $16,337 per year in property taxes, before any incentives are given.
“Those are the properties that (commissioners) have said, ‘Go out there and make it happen,’” Van Geons said. “The county has to want to sell it. They have to say to us, ‘This a is property we’re looking to sell or lease for business use.’”
Government as landlord
Recently, some have suggested that the Rowan-Salisbury School System purchase all or part of the Salisbury Mall for its central administrative office.
Commissioner Craig Pierce has said the county could help save the struggling mall by buying it, using some of the vacant stores for offices and allowing the current tenants to stay in business.
But Barber has pointed out that a state law called the Umstead Act that, in most cases, prohibits governments in North Carolina from competing against private companies.
“Why should we, as a county government entity, be looking at buying more property like the mall, when we’ve got property we’ve been trying to get rid of and can’t?” Barber said.
The county has had problems in the past trying to make money as a property owner.
For a number of years, the Rowan County Agricultural and Industrial Fair Association paid rent to the county for its use of the fairgrounds.
In August, commissioners agreed to sell about half of the 50-acre property to the fair association, giving the association right of first refusal on the remaining vacant land.
Commissioners also took some county property off the books last year when they sold Rowan’s share of Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium to the city of Kannapolis, which now owns the whole property.
The county had invested $5.1 million in the stadium, but it got back just $3 million in the sale.
“We came to the conclusion that after 15 years, it was in need of at least $1.5 million to $2 million worth of repairs,” Page said. “With properties like that, we ask, ‘Do we really want to be in business on this? Or do we want to sell it? Would it have better and higher uses with somebody else?’”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.