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Mitchell: It’s still premature to talk of mall development

SALISBURY — Rowan County Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he has questions about the Salisbury Mall, but the low price tag could prove a steal for the county if the bids fall right.
Mitchell was one of four commissioners who voted to authorize Rowan County Manager Gary Page to cut a $25,000 check for an online auction deposit for the mall property. The auction is scheduled to begin Sept. 23.
“In terms of the overall purchase of the building, to be able to get that low of a price for that square footage, if we can, just starting the process to even look into the possibility was worthwhile,” Mitchell said.
With the $25,000 deposit — which is refundable if the county doesn’t win the property — county leaders are expected to have a detailed history of the mall’s repairs or needed renovations, as well as specifics on the state of the building’s roof, parking lot and heating and air conditioning systems.
Mitchell said the roof and HVAC systems were some of his first questions when commissioners broached the issue at Tuesday’s closed session meeting.
“What are we in fact buying is the overall question,” he said. “You’re not only buying the building and the parking lot. You’re buying any infrastructure liabilities that go along with it.”
When asked about potential county departments that could be moved into the mall if purchased, Mitchell said it’s “too soon” in the process to discuss what could move into the building.
“A lot of hubbub is that we’re pushing to purchase this building and I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of the process,” Mitchell said. “We’re still at the learning stages in terms of trying to say what, if anything, would be placed out there. All of that is too soon at the very least until we determine it’s something we want to put a bid on.”
Robert Van Geons, director of the county’s economic development agency RowanWorks, said the impact on the county’s economy depends on how the county uses the building.
“I think we’re jumping too far ahead to try to extrapolate what those could be,” Van Geons said of the options for the mall. “It’s a big site. I don’t know what they’re looking at.”
Van Geons said the impact on the county would be different if commissioners want to use it for the public services, private business or some combination of both.
He declined to speculate on what the mall’s removal from the county’s tax books could mean for the county.
“It’s a big tax payer but we’re also a big county with a lot of tax payers,” he said.
Van Geons said he’s seen similar situations in counties like Stanly and Mecklenburg where county leaders used rehabbed malls or box stores for county department consolidation.
“I think it varies. It varies based on the property. It varies based on the community,” he said.
Since the news broke earlier this week that commissioners were looking into the possibility of buying the roughly 320,000-square-foot building, others have weighed in on the move.
Former Economic Development Commission board member and current planning board member Bill Wagoner applauded the county’s decision to look at the mall as an option.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Wagoner said the county should remain a player during the bidding process for the sake of the public.
“I will take what might be a surprising position here — given that a very significant financial and geographic asset in our community is available for possibly a very low price per acre and per square foot, I believe a community, through its county commission and/or its city council, should at a minimum, not lose a seat at the table by not securing an opportunity to bid at the opening of the window,” Wagoner wrote.
When reached by phone Thursday, Wagoner declined to provide further remarks on the commissioners’ move, but permitted the Post to use his online assertions.
“This is not to mean I think the county should by all means buy the property, but at least remain a player, requiring the bidding deposit,” Wagoner added. “I harken back to the city, as a last resort, taking the reins of the old Town Creek Mall, and then serving as a facilitator toward its return to a firm tax base. Not to serve as a developer, which it is not qualified to do, but to serve this concept: significant, community-wide threats or opportunities require participation by equally significant and capable parties, e.g. representative government. Facilitate through decisive strategies the actions of the private sector.”
Commissioner Mike Caskey, a former school board member, said the school board has shown no interest in the mall and he doesn’t expect that to change.
Caskey said the mall would be an “ideal place” for a business incubator, which commissioners have batted around some of late, as well as an expanded early college program.
“I think it’s got great potential. If we could get it for the county, it could save a lot of tax payer money if we need to expand or build anything,” Caskey said. “If someone wants to buy it or revitalize the mall and put small businesses out there, that’s great too.”
But, Caskey said, the price has to be right.
“I don’t want to get the mall unless we can get it for a relatively low price. We haven’t decided what a maximum bid would be yet,” he said.
Commissioners are expected to choose a maximum bid by Sept. 16 when they will vote again to give County Manager Gary Page the authority to bid on the mall when the online auction begins.

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

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