RSS board: Downtown still best site for central office

After considering other potential locations for a new central office, five members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education said Friday they still believe a downtown Salisbury site is the best option.

The other two members called that a senseless move given that a majority of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have repeatedly said they won’t support funding for 329 S. Main St.

School system officials may take the matter before commissioners at the county board’s meeting Monday evening.

Chairman Richard Miller, Vice Chairwoman Kay Wright Norman and members Jean Kennedy, Susan Cox and L.A. Overcash voted in favor of taking the downtown site back to commissioners. Members Chuck Hughes and Josh Wagner were opposed.

Along with the downtown site, architect Bill Burgin briefed the board about the former location of the county Department of Social Services on West Innes Street and county-owned land across Julian Road from the Rowan County Fairgrounds.

Several board members said they still support the downtown site because, of the three they considered Friday, it would be the least expensive on which to build a central office.

According to figures provided by Burgin, constructing a 62,000-square-foot building would cost the same at all three sites — about $7.1 million — but the old Social Services and Julian Road sites have additional costs. Including furnishings, the downtown site would cost about $7.7 million, the Julian Road site about $8.2 million, and the Social Services site nearly $8.6 million.

Noting that state law gives the school board the authority to pick the site and commissioners responsibility for financing the facility, Miller said downtown is “the most economical decision for Rowan County.”

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to pick the site that fills the needs the system has for 20,000 kids and that is cost efficient,” Miller said. “Commissioners will have to determine how they fulfill their obligation.”

Hughes called choosing that commissioners have consistently rejected “an exercise in futility.”

“This is the definition of insanity,” he said, “doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.”

History of conflict

The city of Salisbury owns the land at 329 S. Main St. and offered it last year for a central office to bring together employees still scattered among five locations more than two decades after the city and county school systems merged.

But during preparation on the site, crews found more than half a dozen forgotten underground fuel tanks, left over from the property’s days as a service station. The tanks had leaked and contaminated the soil.

With most of the cost borne by the state, 3,500 tons of soil was removed and replaced, and wells installed to monitor groundwater quality. Although county commissioners had agreed to borrow $6 million for a new central office a year earlier, a reconfigured board in February shot down the proposed plan, citing contamination at the site.

The city considered borrowing the money to build the central office, but would have needed county commissioners to approve a long-term lease with the school system, which county officials wouldn’t do.

Even after the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources recently told the city no further action is necessary on the site, commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said the county board wouldn’t consider it.

In October, the county reinstated its $6 million financing pledge and offered a list of five possible sites for a new central office. The 329 S. Main St. property was not on the list, and commissioners Chairman Jim Sides told school system officials they could add other sites for consideration, but not the downtown site.

Still, at their October meeting, the school board picked two sites off the commissioners’ list to consider — the old Department of Social Services property and land in Summit Corporate Park on Julian Road — along with 329 S. Main St.

The school board asked Burgin to look into those sites further.

Burgin said when he talked with County Manager Gary Page about which sites in the county’s industrial park might be available, he was offered the land on Julian Road across from the county fairgrounds, which is now used for event parking.

“If you take it, you’re going to generate another problem somebody else is going to have to solve,” he said.

Costs could climb

Burgin said that while the cost for construction and furnishings would be the same at all three sites, the Julian Road and West Innes Street locations had other costs that would drive up the price of a central office.

While the city is pledging to provide 165 parking spaces for a downtown facility, Burgin estimates it would cost $330,000 to provide the same number of spaces at either of the other two sites.

On the Julian Road site, Burgin said it would cost about $25,000 for utilities, $12,000 for borings and a survey, and $270,000 in fees.

At the old Social Services site, borings and a survey would also cost $12,000, but utilities would cost $50,000 and fees $290,000. Demolishing the old building there would cost $50,000, and removing hazardous materials another $50,000. And the plan includes spending $190,000 to buy an adjacent piece of property that’s currently for sale.

The construction cost is based on the bid school system officials previously approved for the downtown site, $115.33 per square foot. Burgin said that bid probably won’t last.

He also said the cost per square foot would go up to construct a smaller building that would provide no room for future expansion, and so would fees. The result would be smaller buildings that ended up costing more.

“At this stage, if cost is driving the train, you need to stay with 62,000 square feet no matter where you go,” he said.

Board member Cox said she had been interested in the old Social Services site until she saw the numbers.

“It wouldn’t be the most prudent and best stewardship of money,” she said.

Overcash had no interest in the Julian Road site, which is next to the county animal shelter and a recycling convenience center.

“I don’t want to be beside a dog pound and a garbage dump,” he said.

Resolution or lost cause?

A survey posted online by the school system drew nearly 900 responses. Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said about 70 percent of those favored the downtown site for a central office, about 20 percent favored Summit and 10 percent the former Social Services location.

Even with that support, Moody urged the board to resolve the difference in the county’s financing offer and projected cost for the central office, get a guarantee that enough parking will be available and ask Salisbury leaders to assume responsibility, over a specified period of time, should any contamination containment become necessary.

Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson attended the meeting. He said Salisbury officials have planned for plenty of parking, and he supports the city holding the county and school system harmless.

“As mayor, I am recommending that,” he said. “We haven’t voted on it, but I don’t think it will be a problem.”

As for the cost, the board voted 5-2 — with Hughes and Wagner again dissenting — to ask commissioners for the full amount of the project, and to approve a lease-purchase agreement.

Miller said the $6 million already offered simply doesn’t meet the school system’s needs.

“It’s not money they’re taking out of the county till,” he said. “They’re simply acting as the financing agent.”

Wagner called it “the most ridiculous and ignorant thing I’ve ever heard” to say the school board doesn’t know how commissioners will react to the downtown proposal. “We know what the county’s going to say.”

“Maybe the board’s just completely disconnected from reality, I don’t know,” Wagner said of his fellow school board members. “... You guys have fun without a central office for however many years.”

Kennedy disagreed, saying the school board has “jumped through all the hoops” county commissioners required.

Even if that’s true, it may not be enough.

Commissioners Jon Barber and Mike Caskey attended the meeting. Caskey said he heard nothing to change his mind about the proposed downtown location.

“We might need to look at whether $6 million is a reasonable number or not, but as far as the site goes, I feel the same way about it as I felt before,” he said. “I think that particular piece of property has become so polarizing ... if we ever build in it, it’s going to be controversial for years.”

Barber said commissioners had “defined the parameters” for the school board to make a decision. “In my opinion, they’ve done what they’ve been asked,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to follow through on our commitments.”

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