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State panel delays action on Rowan mall loan application

Rowan County’s application to borrow $3.95 million to cover its purchase of the former Salisbury Mall and some renovations remains alive, but members of the state board that must OK the debt say they want more information before making a decision.

The Local Government Commission voted Tuesday to delay action on the application for at least 60 days, putting it on the board’s October agenda.

That’s not the answer opponents were hoping for Tuesday, but it keeps open the possibility that a new majority on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners will ultimately decide what to do with the 320,000-square-foot former mall on Statesville Boulevard.

The Local Government Commission’s staff had recommended tabling the application until after the November elections, when three new members will be elected to the five-member Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

Vance Holliman, the state’s deputy treasurer, told the state board that staff questions the extent of public support for the purchase of the mall — which has generated considerable controversy in Rowan County – and believes it could be a factor in the elections.

The only current county commissioner seeking re-election — Chairman Jim Sides, a champion of the mall purchase — came in fifth in his own party’s primary, Holliman pointed out, and six of eight candidates who will be on the fall ballot signed a letter asking the state to delay action on the application.

“So therefore, if in December, after going through that process, if those candidates, then commissioners, determined there’s public support … I would feel comfortable recommending approval,” he said.

If a new majority on the county board decides to sell the mall, he said, having debt tied to it with make that more difficult and expensive, since the county would incur costs for retiring the debt early.

Still some state board members expressed concern about whether they’d be, as member Mike Philbeck put it, “meddling in local politics.”

“Assuming this is all statutorily permissible, I’m a little concerned about the whole concept of holding off when a legitimately elected group has chosen to do something,” said Philbeck, a banker from Shelby. “It seems to me when we vote for people, we’re stuck with their actions for four years.”

Still, Philbeck said the county leasing space to retail operations and “becoming a landlord in competition with the private sector” concerned him, as it did other commission members.

“I’m very concerned about the notion of a county owning and operating a mall,” said state board member Pete Rodda, a retired property tax assessor from Roper. Other governments have converted entire shopping centers to their own use, he said, but the fact that Rowan continues to negotiate new leases with shops is “something quite unusual, and something well beyond anything I’ve ever heard of.”

The Local Government Commission must approve borrowing for the state’s municipal and county governments. Rowan officials are seeking approval to borrow $3.425 million to replace what they used from county savings to buy the mall in December, and the rest for renovations.

The county intends to move some of its departments there, starting with a 10,000-square-foot Board of Elections for which a bid was approved Monday.

County officials argue that if they don’t replenish the county’s fund balance, or savings account, it will fall to 9 percent of the general fund and that could mean higher interest rates for the next board when it seeks to borrow money, including the $40 million in projects the county agreed to fund for the Rowan-Salisbury School System in mediation earlier this year.

Holliman said the county’s fund balance actually stands at about 20 percent, according to the state’s calculations, and that if it falls below that, “it will not be because of the mall purchase.” County officials say part of that amount is already appropriated and shouldn’t be counted.

State board members said before considering what to do with the application, they want clarity on the county’s fund balance, more information about how the county plans to use the space and how long it intends to lease space to commercial operations.

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