Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 17, 2013
ALBEMARLE — On Dec. 2, County Manager Gary Page is expected to close a deal for the Salisbury Mall.
But it won’t be the first mall Page has purchased.
In fact, Page estimates he’s brokered about $125 million in capital buildings in his 30 years in county management seats across the Carolinas.
One of those projects was the Quenby Mall, now called the Stanly County Commons, which houses the bulk of that county’s departments.
Former Stanly County officials, many of whom oversaw the purchase and transitions, said the buy was unpopular, but necessary — and some said the move has grown in popularity in recent years.
Still, the transition came with a price, some say, costing then-county officials their seats on the board.
Comparing the two mall purchases is problematic, though, because of various differences.
Stanly’s departments were moved into an empty mall a little more than a mile from the downtown area, where many of the departments were formerly housed.
Rowan County expects to build a public-private partnership in the Salisbury mall facility, continuing to honor the contracts of existing businesses. And county leaders have indicated a willingness to bring in new private businesses. That property is roughly 3.5 miles away from where the departments are currently housed.
“It took Stanly 20 years to get to this point,” Page said during a phone interview this past week, “and I would envision that process happening here.”
With Rowan County on the cusp of mall ownership, Stanly officials looked back at their mall purchase, the two decades since and the idea that stoked the ire of some and brought out the staunch support of others.
Shortly after a 37-year-old Gary Page left Stokes County for Stanly in 1992, commissioners were already in talks for the mall.
The Quenby Mall was built in 1966, 20 years before the Salisbury Mall took shape in 1986.
Five months after Stanly commissioners hired Page, county leaders purchased the property for $1.3 million and estimated it would cost another $2.2 million in renovations.
Sitting on 13.23 acres, Stanly County Commons is roughly 130,000 square feet, with the county occupying about 100,000 square feet for department use. The county leases out the remaining 30,000 square feet to Daymark Mental Health, the school board and the Partnership for Children.
But there are differences in Salisbury’s situation.
Rowan officials are expected to purchase the 320,000-square-foot mall — 2 1/2 times the size of Albemarle’s complex — for $3.45 million.
“What downtown became was courts and related departments and the jail,” Page recalled. “What I would envision here is a similar thing. We do the mall and we hang onto the business out there.”
Like Rowan, Stanly had a few businesses that continued to pay leases after the property sold.
One of those, Harris Teeter, paid the county about $100,000 a year in rent for seven years.
Those funds were used to pay overhead expenses for the facility as county officials began slowly renovating and moving departments.
Stanly started with two agencies: the county health department, which was tucked away in a building owned by Stanly Memorial Hospital, and the social services department.
It now houses 19 offices, including the county elections board, transportation department and the economic development commission. The mall also has an indoor farmer’s market on Mondays.
But Dwight Smith, then-chairman of the Stanly commissioners, said the move wasn’t always roses.
“It wasn’t too friendly in some cases,” Smith said with a laugh. “We ran into some opposition. But since that time we have heard that it was one of the best decisions we made — purchasing that mall.”
Smith said he pushed for the mall after the state told Stanly that county leaders needed more space for the courthouse. He said several other departments were also full to the brim.
“I think it’s worked out really, really well,” Smith said. “A lot of people that opposed it, since that time they’ve said it was a good move.”
Smith said he didn’t run for re-election in 1994, instead taking the town administrator post in Norwood.
But his fellow board members, he said, bore the brunt in the next election.
“I think all the other guys on the board got beat in the election and that might have been the reason,” he said, referencing the Quenby acquisition. “It was not real popular at the time.”
In 1994, Page left Stanly for the manager seat in Wilkes County.
Years later, Jerry Myers was tapped to head the county. Myers said he remembers slowly renovating portions of the mall to stay under a state provision that limited the county’s ability to rehab a certain amount at a time.
“I came in 2001. The health department and social services were already there,” Myers said. “We started adding departments over there one by one and did it over a period of about six or seven, maybe even eight years.”
Myers said there was logic to the slow, systematic rehab work.
“I guess this is sneaky, but state law said if you’re going to renovate a certain percentage or spend more than ‘x’ amount of dollars, you better get an architect or an engineer,” Myers said. “We didn’t. We did it just a little bit at a time, stayed within the limits. We saved those expenses. We had a real good building maintenance department that made sure we did everything right. It was sneaky, but it worked. We never exceeded the limits.”
Myers oversaw the installations of several county departments, including the transportation department, board of elections and a county commissioners chamber.
He said he faced opposition from some downtown developers, but doesn’t think the move slowed the town.
“We filled those offices up with judges’ offices and district attorneys and additional courtrooms and all that stuff, so I don’t think we hurt downtown business any.”
But, he agreed, the move may have had political repercussions.
“In talking to one of the commissioners, he said it cost them the election that year when they bought the mall,” Myers said, “but long term, it was the best decision the county could’ve made.”
The Salisbury Mall has been on the minds of some commissioners for years, but efforts accelerated in August when the mall was placed on an online auction site.
In a December 2012 Post report on the more than 1,300 acres of land the county owns, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce suggested the county should get involved in the slumping complex.
Most of the estimated $66 million in county real estate is used for public buildings, park land and parking lots, but other property has gone unused.
With the mall purchase, the county hopes to sell off some of the property — like a former social services office on Mahaley Avenue.
County officials planned to move the board of elections into the building earlier this year, but Page said that office will be one of the first mall installations.
Page said the county is looking at offers for the Mahaley Avenue property.
“I think the city has an interest in that property,” he said. “We would want to work with them to figure out some sort of arrangement to sell it to them.”
County leaders are also hoping to negotiate a sale with the owners of K&W on the mall site.
Page said the restaurant currently owns its building but pays a ground lease to the mall owners.
“That would give you a substantial amount of money,” Page said, referring to needed funding for signage and mall upfitting.
When asked about upfitting estimates at the mall, Page said it was “premature” to quote possible costs.
“There are no (estimates) to share at this time. We will be hiring an architect to begin the process of the best use of space,” Page said. “To quote (estimates) at this point is premature.”
Rowan County commissioners said the mall provides the county with plenty of office space — a necessity, they said, as some offices need expansion. Some of the departments that may be affected include:
• Probation: The county has seen a boost in state-funded probation officers, Page said, but the county has the responsibility of housing those employees. In recent months, probation officers have been housed in a nearby license tag office and in some attorneys’ offices.
Page said he expects to see a continued uptick in the probation department and said he would like to see the county house that department at the current 402 N. Main St. building.
• Planning, environmental health, register of deeds and tax administration: Customers at the 402 N. Main St. office, Page said, often need permits from several departments and it would not make sense to move only one department.
With the proposed department moves, Salisbury could see several hundred county employees move out of the downtown area. Page estimated between 60 to 70 county employees work in the North Main building.
• Others: The transportation department has two employees, the veteran services office is expected to have two employees and the elections department has four or five, he said. The elections department has been asking for more space for years and, Page said, other departments are going to need more room as the county grows.
• Sheriff’s Office: Page estimated the Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest department, has between 175 and 190 employees.
Part of that growth is in the courthouse, he said, and he hopes to see the courthouse staff occupy the Sheriff’s Office after the transition.
“The courthouse is going to have to grow. The question was, ‘How?’ ” Page said. “With a new building?”
He added, “You lessen the pressure if you move the sheriff out. Do you buy the mall and plan to use it or do you sit back and wait for the pressures of our expansion to come?”
Current Stanly County commissioners Chairman Gene McIntyre called the Salisbury Mall purchase a possible “steal,” but said there will be an economic impact around the mall and in downtown Salisbury.
McIntyre said one of the biggest factors is what the county chooses to do with the newfound space in the downtown area and if more employees are hired to minimize the impact.
McIntyre said the Salisbury Mall would be a “lot farther from downtown” than Stanly County’s move, but he said the west side of Salisbury could benefit significantly from it.
“It’s going to take some away from your downtown, too,” he said. “Places to eat and that sort of thing.”
Robert Van Geons, executive director at RowanWorks, was the EDC director in Stanly after the Stanly Commons purchase.
Van Geons has worked out of the Stanly County Commons, too, but called the mall comparison “apples to oranges.”
“Each project like this has its own unique set of factors,” he said. “In this case, each one’s unique.”
Van Geons, who works with Rowan County and Downtown Salisbury Inc. officials, said the old Quenby mall was much closer to downtown and Stanly had a “different economic landscape there.”
Van Geons was hesitant to provide an estimated economic impact on the mall. The results would depend on the specific habits of those county employees, he said, likening the prediction to a “behavioral analysis.”
“Wherever you put a large concentration of new investment and employees and/or visitors, there’s going to be an economic impact that goes along with that,” he said.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.