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Request denied?

The N.C. Local Government Commission will hear Rowan County’s application to borrow $3.95 million for the purchase and upfitting of the former Salisbury Mall, but with a recommendation of denial from the state board’s staff.
That news was in a letter sent last week to County Manager Gary Page from Vance Holliman, deputy state treasurer and Local Government Commission secretary. Given that information, Page said he doesn’t expect the application will be approved by the commission when it meets Tuesday.
“I would be surprised if they would overrule staff,” he said. “They will probably take the staff’s recommendation and deny the application.”
Page said Rowan County commissioners plan to go ahead with a public hearing scheduled for Monday on an application they’d planned to resubmit to the state after being told earlier their request wouldn’t even be heard by the Local Government Commission.
Commissioners meet at 3 p.m. Monday on the second floor of the County Administration Building, 130 W. Innes St.
The county already owns the mall, having paid $3.425 million in December for the troubled 320,000-square-foot shopping center on Statesville Boulevard. They renamed it West End Plaza and plan to move some county offices there.
They funded the purchase out of county savings, which they planned to replenish with a loan repaid over 10 years. In addition to the purchase price, the loan application included $525,000 for the first phase of renovations.
But among the factors staff for the Local Government Commission — which must approve borrowing by the state’s municipal and county governments — considers when evaluating applications is local sentiment. And in Rowan, there’s been plenty of it against the mall acquisition.
More than 70 people signed up to speak against it at an initial public hearing on the loan application, and six of the eight candidates who’ll be on the ballot for county commissioner this fall signed a letter asking the state not to take action on the application until after the election.
In his letter, Holliman said that while the state considers Rowan “a financially well-managed county” and recommendations not to approve applications are unusual, “there are unusual circumstances surrounding the application” and the staff doesn’t feel all “required statutory findings can be made.”
The letter goes on to say the state commission has received letters and telephone calls in opposition to the application in addition to reviewing minutes of the public hearing and finding “that a great majority of citizens attending that evening were opposed to the application.”
Holliman also writes the staff consider the results of recent local elections, in this case the May primary in which Chairman Jim Sides — a proponent of buying the mall and the only commissioner seeking re-election — was unseated.
“Taken as a whole, these circumstances suggest that the extent of public support is uncertain, especially compared with the vast majority of financing applications we receive,” he wrote.
Page and Sides argue the state commission’s staff is making a mistake if it’s concerned about the county’s fiscal health. The money has already been spent, they say, and having less in savings will only result in higher interest rates for the next board of county commissioners, such as when they borrow $40 million the county already agreed to fund in Rowan-Salisbury School System projects.
“As time goes forward and we go through the fall election and people are seated, they’re going to see this effort to block the financing was a mistake,” he said.
And the county plans to move forward with renovations at the former mall. The board will consider bids Monday for work to move the Board of Elections there, and will get bids later this month for the Veterans Services Office, Page said. The money will come out of what had already been budgeted this year and will mean less for repairs to the roof and heating and air system, he said.
Commissioners will still take public comment on the application Monday “in the event that the Local Government Commission were to rule in our favor over the staff recommendation,” Page said.
James Kirks, a spokesman for the group La Resistance, which campaigned heavily against the mall and Sides during the primaries, said his group will be out in force again and is encouraging others to be as well so there’s not doubt about current sentiment.
“We’re trudging forward … because you just don’t know, things can happen,” he said.

Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248.

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