County going ahead with mall purchase

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SALISBURY — Commissioners gave County Manager Gary Page the green light to purchase the Salisbury Mall on Monday.

Following a closed-session in a specially called meeting, county leaders voted 4-1 to buy the mall for $3.425 million. Officials also voted to allocate up to 20 percent of the mall for public education programs.

Commissioners voted last month to buy the mall and were expected to close on the $3.45 million purchase earlier this week. Instead, they delayed the closing until Dec. 16. Page said at the time financial issues had arisen that could affect commissioners’ decision.

Page said the lower purchase price agreed to Monday reflected changes in some leases at the mall.

Chairman Jim Sides and commissioners Chad Mitchell and Mike Caskey supported Vice Chairman Craig Pierce’s motion to proceed with buying the mall.Commissioner Jon Barber continued his opposition to the project.

After the motion, Barber was first to remark on the negotiations and said the talks should have happened with more transparency.

“My main argument for validating why it should not be purchased is simply because the mall cannot be redeveloped without a tax increase,” Barber said.

Sides said a tax increase is probable, but the county has facility needs and the mall could be the most economical solution.

“I’d like to make one comment related to what Mr. Barber said. He is correct probably to some degree the mall can’t be redeveloped without a tax increase,” Sides said. “But first of all, we could not meet the needs of the Sheriff’s Office and storage, the needs of the (Veteran Services Office) officers, the needs of the Board of Elections and other ideas that we have envisioned.

“Those needs could not be met. Other capital needs that the county has now and five years from now won’t be able to be met by the tax increase either,”?he said. “But those needs can be met with less of a tax increase with the mall purchase than they would if we bought new buildings. I think that’s important to say.”

Mitchell spoke longer and, perhaps, more passionately than he has in the last year in defending the mall purchase.

Mitchell, an educator with the local school system, countered some of Barber’s past criticisms of the purchase — the need for better education instead and more veteran services — by saying the mall could be a chance for creative educational opportunities, like training culinary students in former restaurant kitchens and having more space for veteran programs.

“The mall concept is going away. This is it. All this square footage under one roof,” Mitchell said. “We either take it now or another group will take it, possibly. I believe that the most likely result is the building will be razed and I think that’s fine for some, but what we could do in Rowan County would be to take a building that has lost, for all original purpose, all useful life and give it new life and create something that would really attract something.”

It would have been easier to vote against the mall purchase, Mitchell said, but he didn’t hear arguments that swayed him.

“If one person had given me one valid, logical reason for not purchasing the mall, I would have changed my mind,” he said.

Caskey called the purchase a “gamble,” but said it was one worth taking.

“$3.425 million, that is a lot of money and Commissioner Barber says he thinks there’s a possibility of a tax increase, but I know there are also numbers that say we can break even on it,” Caskey said. “What leases stay, what leases go. Really, I think there is a gamble there, but you have to make hard decisions as a commissioner. That’s what people voted for us to do. I?think it’s a good deal for the county. I?think in the long run everybody is going to be happy, and that’s why I?support it.”

After the meeting, Pierce said the county doesn’t have any specific plans for the possible 20 percent of the mall commissioners said they would dedicate to public education programs.

“We really haven’t gotten into the semantics of it,”?Pierce said when asked if education funds could be used to pay for mall redevelopment. “We’ll take each case individually. We do know that Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is always needing space. We see a need to bring our education system as many advantages as possible with our limited funds.

“If housing a particular program or housing a particular special education format, then that’s great, that’s what we’d like to do,” he said. “We really don’t want to lock in stone what we’re going to do and that’s it. Think about it, things change all the time, and you can’t predict the future.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.