If county pulls jobs out, it could be ‘devastating’

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 8, 2013

SALISBURY — The president of Downtown Salisbury Inc. says he is “extremely concerned” about Rowan County’s plan to move county employees from downtown to the Salisbury Mall.
“Every job we lose is devastating to our downtown,” Mark Lewis said.
Relocating county employees would have a major economic impact on the downtown, Lewis said, although he doesn’t know how severe because the county hasn’t done a study. Downtown restaurants like Richard’s Bar-B-Que and Hap’s Grill and other businesses rely on Rowan County workers as customers, and many attorneys have invested in downtown offices to be close to the courthouse and register of deeds, he said.
“Before any sort of mass exodus takes place of county employees, the county needs some sort of economic impact study, even if that’s asking (the Rowan County Economic Development Commission) to do something in-house,” Lewis said.
Lewis said while he respects the ability of county officials to analyze and plan for future space needs, the process should be more transparent.
“The public doesn’t know enough about the ongoing space needs of the county,” he said.
If Rowan County has such a demand for space, why isn’t the county moving employees into two empty, county-owned office buildings on West Innes Street and Mahaley Avenue, Lewis said. The county offered both vacant buildings to the Rowan-Salisbury School System for a central office.
As a former City Council member, Lewis said he understands the need to negotiate the purchase of the mall behind closed doors, but leaders have the responsibility to make their case to the electorate, and time is growing short.
Rowan commissioners have offered $3.45 million for the mall and expect to close on the property Dec. 2, according to Rowan County Manager Gary Page. It’s not clear how many employees would leave the downtown or which departments would relocate.
County officials have said the 320,000-square-foot mall could provide a new home for the county’s board of elections and veteran services. Page said the mall also could house the county’s transportation department, register of deeds, tax assessor, planning department and Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest department.
While Page said the move could take years, commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce on Saturday told City Manager Doug Paris the transition will be “fairly quick.”
“It’s up to the commissioners, and we’re going to move forward and do this,” Pierce 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.”
Lewis said DSI values “every single job” in the downtown and needs a critical mass of people working downtown to maintain the health and vibrancy of the central business district, which he called the “urban core and heart of this county.”
An economic impact study showed that if about 165 employees moved downtown to work in the proposed central school office, they would generate $1.25 million in retail sales and services. Conversely, taking away 165 jobs away would have a similar negative effect, Lewis said.
Lewis said he’s confident that Pierce, who serves on the DSI board and has a business located on the outskirts of downtown, understands the ramifications of a mass exodus of county employees and would not do anything to harm downtown.
Downtown’s occupancy rate, which was more than 90 percent before 2008, has suffered since the recession and several businesses have closed, Lewis said. He said he doesn’t have the current occupancy rate because DSI does not have an executive director to calculate it.
The organization has nine finalists for the top job and hopes to have someone in place by the end of the year.
While Pierce said consolidating county services at the Salisbury Mall could save taxpayers up to $75 million, Lewis said the devil is in the details, which are unknown.
“But make no mistake, it will only take three of five (commissioners) to pull this off,” Lewis said. “We were reminded of that.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.