County eyes downtown exodus

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 7, 2013

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SALISBURY — Rowan commissioners are planning to move some county departments out of downtown if they buy the Salisbury Mall, but which ones and the timeline for the move haven’t been decided, county officials said Wednesday.

County leaders have openly discussed moving the county board of elections, veteran services department and a Rowan County Sheriff’s Office warehouse to the Salisbury Mall if commissioners purchase the 320,000-square-foot facility.

But County Manager Gary Page said Wednesday the mall could also house the transportation department, the register of deeds, the county tax assessor, the county’s planning department and the county’s largest department, the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.

On Monday, county leaders voted to offer $3.45 million for the Jake Alexander property. Page said the county has spoken to the mall’s owner and expects to close on the mall on Dec. 2.

“I could see the Sheriff’s Department being moved there,” Page said. “You might even see our 402 (N. Main St.) building being moved there.”

Page said the county has seen a surge in need for probation officers — and the boost has left the county reeling for probation housing.

If the county moves the departments from 402 N. Main St., Page said he expects the probation officers to move into the building. The county then wouldn’t have to pay rent, he said.

Page said the Sheriff’s Office could then be used for courthouse space. The jail would not be moved, he said.

Still, Page said he expects the transition to be a lengthy process with a number of hurdles for the plans to proceed.

“I can understand some of their anxiety,” Page said of downtown attorneys and people who use the register of deeds office. “It’ll take a number of years, a lot of planning and a lot of different commissioners working together and elections. I don’t think there’s any need for immediate fear that something’s going to happen overnight.”

But at a Republican men’s meeting Saturday, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce told Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris the transition could happen quickly.

“There’s been some conversations that this will highly impact downtown Salisbury. I would tell the City Council, their city manager and all the other people that are associated with downtown, we are giving you a heads up that this is coming,” Pierce said. “You all need to get proactive to decide how you are going to handle this transition and don’t think that this is something the county is doing to be adversely affecting the city because that’s not our goal.

“Our goal is to take care of all 138,000 citizens of this county, which includes those inside the Salisbury city limits, but we’re letting you know ahead of time that this transition is coming. It’s going to come fairly quick, so I would advise you to quit fighting the battle and get started with the new game plan so that you all can be effective in maintaining your downtown Salisbury area with the least amount of impact.”

Pierce also said he expected the news media to criticize him on the mall, but said the decision is not up to city officials.

“Well I’m just going to tell you, it’s not up to them. It’s up to the commissioners, and we’re going to move forward and do this,” he said. “So all I will tell them is, it’s time for you to quit crying about the situation and get your head screwed on tight and go move forward with a positive plan of action.”

When reached by phone Wednesday, Pierce said he was trying to prepare city officials for the transition and that their input is beneficial in future department shifts.

“All I’m trying to do is tell them, point blank, ‘Get ready. We’re going to move county departments.’ Which ones, I don’t know. It’s not up to me. We’ll have somebody that’s a lot smarter than me to design a plan and then the commissioners will decide on how they want to implement it,” Pierce said.

Paris, the city manager, said moving county offices from downtown to the mall will be detrimental.

“This is really going to upset a lot of people,” Paris said. “A lot of people have made investments in our downtown, and a lot of businesses depend on those investments.”

Paris said he doesn’t know details about which county departments would move to the mall, but based on Pierce’s comments at the Republican Men’s breakfast last week, Paris said he believes more offices than previously discussed would leave downtown.

“He was acknowledging that it will have a negative impact,” Paris said.

Before commissioners made an offer on the mall, they should have studied the economic impact that pulling employees and relocating departments would have on the downtown, he said.

Paris said he doesn’t have a figure, but a recent economic development study showed that bringing 160 employees downtown to the proposed school central office would generate $1.25 million a year in retail sales and services.

“So taking 160 employees out of the downtown would remove that,” he said.

With the mall purchase, the county would also take ownership of the K&W Cafeteria property — the restaurant owns the building but currently pays a ground lease for the land — and the former $2 Cinemas.

County officials said they expect to talk with K&W ownership to discuss selling the land to K&W.

Page said he also expects the county to promptly address the sewage problem that brought the theater to a sudden close this week.

“When we started talking about buying the mall we were told he had intentions of closing the theater,” Page said of the owner. “I think that probably accelerated his decision to close. If we’re the owners on Dec. 2, we’ll take some of this extra money, we’ll fix that and we’ll probably talk with the owner about coming back.”

Pierce said the county would not pursue big box stores to come to the mall if the purchase proceeds, but would entertain offers from interested retailers.

“We are making available any empty retail areas that we don’t currently have any plans for,” Pierce said, “then, naturally we’ll be receptive to somebody coming in and signing a lease and setting up.”

He said the county also hopes to keep the current shops at the mall to help with overhead costs.

Page said the transportation department move would involve two employees. He said the county has stored buses and vans in the school system’s bus maintenance garage area for years. Those vehicles are expected to be moved to the mall.

Pierce said he does not see commissioners moving the county administrative building at 130 W. Innes St.

“We’ve talked about that. That went through a major upfit about 20 years ago,” Pierce said. “Once we move the board of elections out, we’ll have more than ample space for the departments that remain. That building has already been rehabbed. I think it’s probably good for another 30 or 40 years.”

But he couldn’t commit one way or another on the downtown justice center.

“I can’t say, ‘No’ and I can’t say, ‘Yes.’ We haven’t developed a master plan that we want to do at this time,” Pierce said. “There’s so many options that we can do with the mall that it would be foolish for me to sit here and put a guideline out that as time comes forward may never come to fruition.”

Page said he doesn’t see the county moving the downtown jail — particularly because of the price.

“The big anchor for the courthouse is the fact that we have a jail facility that has bed space for 210 inmates,” Page said. That’s a $9 million asset that you just can’t walk away from.”

Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said he sees a healthy county seat as crucial for Rowan, and “that means keeping our downtown healthy.”

“If you have a strong downtown, it tells people that your community is healthy and vibrant,” Woodson said. “I hate to see as mayor all those departments move out. It will hurt businesses and restaurants.”

The city’s One Stop Shop includes county employees to better serve businesses and developers, and Woodson said he was concerned about delays if the county moves departments involved in the permitting process to the mall.

“They have the right to buy the mall. We certainly hate to see them go out there,” Woodson said.

He said he wonders how much it will cost to bring the mall up to code, replace the roof, upfit offices and more.

“I hope commissioners will look at that,” he said.

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.