Council votes to pursue $8.37 million for school central office after large turnout at public hearing

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SALISBURY — From a school maintenance worker to a former bank president, more than 80 people spoke in favor Tuesday of the city’s plan to borrow $8.37 million for the proposed school central office.
Dozens more packed City Hall in support.
The public hearing went well past the two-hour mark, but the speakers didn’t have to work hard to convince City Council, which voted unanimously as expected to borrow the money on behalf of the Rowan-Salisbury School System. The city hopes to construct the 62,000-square-foot building at 329 S. Main St.
The plan still requires a nod from the state’s Local Government Commission. If approved, the school system would make the city’s debt payments as part of a 20-year lease agreement.
The project and location have been controversial, but most supporters said the new facility would have the greatest economic impact if placed downtown in a densely populated area.
It won’t take long for private investment and jobs to follow the school central office, advocates said.
Pete Bogle, an architect and director for the Rowan County Building Codes Enforcement Department, said potential developers become “very interested” in the area when they learn about the three-story central office, which would bring 160 employees downtown.
“If this building is built, we would have a developer committed to the Empire Hotel within a year,” Bogle said.
Downtown Salisbury Inc. has been trying to find a developer for years for its vacant, historic hotel property located just up the street from the proposed central office site.
Plans to build the school facility already have paid off for the city, Councilman Brian Miller said.
The $3.2 million Salisbury Business Center and headquarters for Integro Technologies is going up next door to the proposed central office.
Miller said Integro’s decision proves his mantra that private development follows public investment. Since the central office project has gotten traction, Downtown Salisbury has received “very serious interest in the Empire,” Miller said.
A majority of Rowan County commissioners declined to fund the downtown location, citing environmental contamination at the former gas station. In April, the state gave the property a green light for development after a massive cleanup.
Commissioner Jon Barber spoke in favor of the project at Tuesday’s hearing.
Many speakers criticized the county’s lack of support for the central office and praised the city for stepping in. The school system, which can’t borrow money, does not have a central office even though the city and county school systems merged more than two decades ago.
“I’ve lived in my grandfather’s county. Now it’s time to live in my grandson’s county,” school board member L.A. Overcash told City Council. “Thanks for taking this step forward when our commissioners have let us down.”
Many school system employees who work in the dilapidated Long Street administration office — one of five facilities used by school administration employees — spoke about difficult and unsafe working conditions. Ken Goforth, who has worked in maintenance for 18 years, called the Long Street office “a maintenance nightmare.”
Several technology department employees said they felt as though they’d been living at the Long Street office for the past two months, handling a rash of problems with like the server room overheating.
Dr. Julie Morrow, the new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said she had planned to write an eloquent speech for the hearing but was too busy driving between the five offices, meeting with her staff.
Ted Goins, a downtown resident and CEO for Lutheran Services Carolinas, called the central office a “great, desperate need in our community.”
Not since the annexation debate has City Council seen such a large turnout at a meeting. Many people couldn’t even get into the council chamber.
But this time, even an annexation opponent supported the city.
Charles Black’s property was annexed six years ago.
“I’m getting a little bit better with it,” Black said. “Because I see some of our tax money going for a good cause.”
One person, Dr. Ada Fisher, spoke in opposition of the project and questioned the cost to taxpayers.
Many supporters carried a brick provided by Downtown Salisbury Inc. President Mark Lewis collected the bricks throughout the hearing and built a small wall to symbolize the foundation of the new central office.
Paul Fisher, chairman and CEO of F&M Financial Corporation and former president of F&M Bank, gave an impassioned speech about the value of education, which he seemed to direct at Rowan County commissioners more than City Council. Commissioners recently cut $225,000 from the school system budget.
Fisher called education the “common denominator for the success of any community, any time, any place.”
“Education is the very fuel that drives economic development, creates jobs and improves the quality of life for everyone,” he said. “Those counties that pursue and support education with a vengeance and those who have education as a strategic initiative will prosper. Those who do not will sink further into economic despair.”
Rowan is already suffering high unemployment, Fisher said, with 21.5 percent of residents living in poverty, compared to a national rate of 15 percent.
Many speakers said the central office would be a symbol of the community’s commitment to education and progress.
“The new central office is not the panacea for all of our problems, but it’s a great first step to turning our fortunes around,” Fisher said. “… When the central office is built, we will immediately become a beacon of light.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.