City officials say central office project not dead, despite setbacks

SALISBURY — The construction bid has expired on the proposed downtown central office, but city officials say they haven’t given up on the controversial project.

“I’m always hopeful,” Mayor Paul Woodson said.

Central office architect Bill Burgin said he asked low bidder Marand Builders of Charlotte to extend the $7.3 million price tag for 30 days. That was when the city expected the state’s Local Government Commission to consider Salisbury’s loan application in October, a month later than officials had hoped.

But when the city withdrew its application two weeks ago, Burgin said Marand could not extend the firm’s bid indefinitely.

“It’s just not practical to ask them to look at extending it without a definitive date,” Burgin said.

If the city can find a way to line up financing for the project in the next few months, Burgin said he believes Marand would still honor the price. If not, the city would have to re-bid the project.

Marand’s bid came in more than $1 million cheaper than expected. The financing bid for the project, which was also about $1 million less than anticipated, expires on Oct. 23.

“Given the economy, it would not surprise me in 60 days that I would be able to hold that price, and it could even be more time,” Burgin said.

Burgin acknowledged that without state approval to borrow the money, the city of Salisbury faces an uphill battle to finance the project.

“I think it will take an exceptional effort to find $7 million quickly,” Burgin said.

The city wants to build a three-story office building at 329 S. Main St. and lease it to the Rowan-Salisbury School System for a central office. A majority of Rowan County commissioners oppose the downtown location, chosen by the school board.

The city took over the project after county commissioners refused to borrow money for the downtown office, citing environmental contamination. While several commissioners said they were glad to wash their hands of the project, city officials say they had to pull Salisbury’s loan application because of interference from the county.

County officials deny the charge. Commission Chairman Jim Sides declined the city’s request to write a letter of support for the project to the Local Government Commission.

Now, it appears the city has two options — find a private developer or hope for major donations from local philanthropists.

Burgin said the lease term will make it tough to find a private developer willing to take on the project. To avoid needing Rowan County’s blessing, the city configured a 35-month lease for the central office — one day less than a lease that would have to go before commissioners.

“I don’t know of many developers that would do it for less than 15 years,” Burgin said. “In my opinion, the local gift is the best of the two choices.”

Woodson said while the city is working to find a private developer to take over the project, he hasn’t ruled out the chance that some of Salisbury’s prominent philanthropists may come forward.

“People are talking about it, the possibility of a donation,” he said. “There is an incredible amount of support for this project everywhere I go.”

However, if a private developer shows interest, Woodson said he hopes county commissioners will approve a long-term lease. The city and county could see substantial property tax revenue from the project, he said.

The central office would help the city lure a developer for the vacant Empire Hotel, Woodson said. With both projects in private hands, the city and county could see up to $350,000 in new tax revenue annually, he said.

“I hope that would convince them to allow a longer lease,” Woodson said.

City Manager Doug Paris said the city continues to look at ways to move the project forward.

“Currently, we are looking at the option as it relates to a private developer,” Paris said.

Lease terms for the building “would be a discussion between any future developer and the entity leasing the building,” he said.

By consensus in July, City Council members said they want to pursue an office building on South Main Street, even if it doesn’t host the school central office.

“Even if it’s not a school building, it’s worth doing,” Woodson said at the time. “It will spur growth for Salisbury.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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