Commissioners clear air on West End Plaza during retreat

Published 12:01 am Friday, February 6, 2015

A months-long battle over the former Salisbury Mall could end in March, when the Salisbury City Council is expected to consider a conditional district overlay for government services.

For about two hours on Thursday — the first day of a county planning retreat — commissioners debated the future of the county-owned facility. The first portion of discussion included commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey questioning the newest three commissioners about their stance on how to best handle the 320,000-square-foot former mall. The building — renamed to West End Plaza — was a scheduled topic on the commissioners’ planning retreat agenda, which began Thursday and continues today.

Just five minutes into discussion on the West End Plaza, Caskey cut straight to the point — do the three newest commissioners want to sell the former mall?

“I’d just like to start out by seeing if this newly constituted board wants to sell the mall or not,” Caskey said. “If they’re going to sell it, lets just get it out and get it out of the way. Lets just put everything out on the table and get that out first.”

As each new commissioner responded, each largely echoed stances during the 2014 campaign cycle. The consensus among the three newest commissioners — Chairman Greg Edds, Vice Chairman Jim Greene and Commissioner Judy Klusman — was to obtain all data related to the county’s space needs before making a decision.

Half joking, Craig Pierce said he would only sell the mall for a significant sum of money — he used $50 million as an example. When describing reasoning for the $50 million sum, Pierce chiefly mentioned that buying as much space as the county owns at West End Plaza would cost significantly more than $3.4 million — what the county paid in 2013 — in another location. Pierce also brought up the future space needs of the county, which all commissioners agreed was critical.

The West End Plaza discussion ultimately led to several significant announcements by both Edds and County Manager Aaron Church about ongoing efforts related to the mall — specifically, a permit for government services and a space needs study.

In late 2014, the city council denied, by a 4-1 vote, a special use permit for government services at the mall. The council subsequently directed the county to apply for a conditional district overlay. The county appealed the denial, but earlier this year decided to put its appeal on pause and apply for the permit suggested by the city.

When Klusman asked about a potential date for the permit’s approval, Edds announced to the commissioners that interim city manager John Sofley told Edds it could come up for a vote by city council in early March.

When contacted after the first day of the retreat ended, Sofley confirmed the city’s current schedule for the permit would place it in front of Salisbury’s City Council on March 3, at the earliest. The Salisbury Planning Board is scheduled to consider the county’s governmental services permit on Feb. 24, Sofley said.

A significant amount of discussion also focused on a space needs study that would reveal the state of each department’s space needs.

The study was initially scheduled to be released a few months ago, but county officials asked for the judicial system, which the county also provides space for, to be included. Edds, Church and Greene said they saw a draft of the study this week. The study’s final version would be presented in March, Edds said.

“One of the overriding requests from multiple, multiple, multiple departments has been conference space, whether it was for six people or as many as 300,” Edds said “So, the question becomes: do you build 85 conference rooms for 30 different departments and 12 different auditoriums or do we begin to think big from the community-wide standpoint?”

Other than dates or deadlines, commissioners focused a large part of discussion on how long the county should wait to start construction, which was a point of disagreement.

“We have to know that when we put one guy here and one guy there that it’s not going to interfere with the overall, grand plan for that facility and its going to be used as its best use,” Edds said. “I’m just one guy and I’m thinking 20 years down the road about what things will really look like.”

Church said the county has bids and contracts in hand for construction on the interior of the mall but still hasn’t solicited bids for the roof, which Church said would be a necessary repair cost, as the roof has already outlived its projected lifespan. Roof construction was a major part of discussion about when to start work on the former mall.

The county couldn’t start any work until the City of Salisbury issues some type of permit allowing government services, but Church said the county could solicit bids, allowing work to begin as soon as the permit is issued. While Edds favored waiting on all departments until every piece of data is collected, Pierce said much of the work needed was already done by the previous commissioners.

“With the board of elections, one of the major things we looked at is that it’s handicap accessible and right through the door,” Pierce said. “So, there’s really no other place that makes sense for them to go. Kicking the can down the road even six weeks doesn’t make sense to me. It’s already been evaluated. It’s already been vetted. It’s already been voted on. I don’t think it’s the position of this board to change that. So, I think as soon as we have the permit in hand, we need to pull permits and go.”

Board of Elections member Elaine Hewitt, who was in the audience, said the department would have to be in a new location by the end of September, at the latest, in order to be operational for 2015 municipal elections and prepared for the 2016 Presidential primary, which was moved up earlier in 2016 than previous years.

Another significant discussion topic during the meeting was the initial purchase of the mall. Greene said one of his issues with the mall purchase to begin with was a lack of information.

Pierce clarified that the auction process involved in the mall purchase was fast paced. He said increasing the amount of information made public could have helped with public perception about the former mall immediately after and during the campaign season.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246