Commissioners approve mall loan following brief public hearing

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Following a public hearing that only included three speakers, Rowan County Commissioners on Monday unanimously approved proceeding with a loan for the former Salisbury Mall.

Two of the speakers — Todd Paris and Julian Torrey — were members of La Resistance during the 2014 campaign cycle. Both spoke against the loan during the public hearing. A third was Salisbury attorney Bill Cameron, who spoke in favor. Without discussion, commissioners approved the loan at a rapid pace, with a motion, second and vote coming within seconds of each other.

The loan, for a total of $3.95 million, includes money to replenish the county’s fund balance from the late 2013 purchase and $500,000 for renovations. The loan now will go to the N.C. Local Government Commission — a financial regulatory agency — who will vote on whether to allow county government to take out the loan. Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said the loan could be considered during the state agency’s May meeting, which would allow the county to close on the deal shortly after.

Paris said the low turnout was caused by the county’s choice to have its public hearing during a 3 p.m. meeting. The time, Paris said, made attending the commissioners’ meeting difficult for most working-age Rowan County residents. He said the early meeting only allows for retirees and the self-employed to attend.

“That’s not really a good slice of our pie,” Paris said about those who were able to attend.

When asked after the meeting about the 3 p.m. time, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Greg Edds said the public hearing date was set to expedite Local Government Commission consideration.

“We’re just trying to get it to the LGC,” Edds said. “If we move our meetings to Saturday morning at 10 a.m., we may get more turnout too.”

Paris also asked for documentation showing the loan might prevent the county’s bond rating from decreasing in the future — an item Finance Director Leslie Heidrick mentioned during a commissioners’ retreat earlier this year.

Heidrick said no letter existed from the Local Government Commission or agency concerning the county’s current rating. Instead, she said the potential of a lower bond rating was an individual assessment she made based on previous county practices.

“We’re fine without the financing, but it will make us stronger,” she said.

Torrey questioned the cost of repairs for the former mall — now called West End Plaza — during the public hearing, specifically the roof, which commissioners have said would need to be replaced.

Conversely, Cameron said he supported the commissioners proceeding with a West End Plaza loan to maintain the county’s financial strength. The slow pace new commissioners — Edds, Vice Chairman Jim Greene and Commissioner Judy Klusman — have adopted when considering matters related to West End Plaza was another reason Cameron said he supported proceeding with the loan.

“I think there are larger issues here than the mall itself, and one of those is the county’s financial health,” Cameron said.

Using the number of speakers during the public hearing as an example, Cameron said West End Plaza as a whole seems to be less controversial than it was immediately after its purchase.

The county’s financing rates for the loan approved Monday were lower than rates proposed last year, when commissioners dropped the loan before new commissioners were elected. The approved proposal, from First Bank, includes a taxable interest rate of 2.5 percent on $2.5 million. The tax-exempt interest rate in the recommended First Bank proposal is 1.7 percent on $1.45 million. First Bank’s proposal would result in $440,227 in interest. Including interest, the loan would be for nearly $4.4 million. It would be paid off over 10 years.

School board member Chuck Hughes spoke about the West End Plaza loan during the meeting, but before the public hearing. Hughes said he supported the loan, and hoped county government would proceed more quickly on West End Plaza than the Rowan Salisbury School System’s central office.

Since becoming a commissioner, Edds has said commissioners need to sell Rowan County residents on the West End Plaza being used for county offices. He said the low turnout didn’t represent the fact that commissioners had convinced Rowan residents.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.