After three years, limited progress toward county’s space needs plans at West End Plaza

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 12, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — Entering year four of ownership, Rowan County commissioners are only two departments and a few million dollars into a planned $28 million move into West End Plaza.

Purchased in late 2013 for $ 3.45 million, the former shopping mall is seen as a cost-effective option to provide office space for cramped county departments. It’s been a campaign issue in the previous two county commissioners elections and contributed to former Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides’ defeat in 2014.

So far, however, county officials have moved only the Board of Elections and Veterans Services into the building. Figures provided by County Manager Aaron Church show the county has spent roughly $2.3 million on construction-related costs, much of which went for work on part of the roof.

The total amount spent by county officials at West End Plaza is only slightly larger than construction alone. The amount of county funds invested equals roughly $6.8 million, according to expenditure reports, budgets and figures provided by Church.

During today’s planning retreat, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners is set to talk about the future of West End Plaza. The retreat will be in the commissioners’ meeting room on the second floor of the county administration building. More than one member of the county board says it’s time to make important decisions about the future of the facility.

“To be honest, we have had so few discussions about it that I don’t know where the other commissioners stand,” said Commissioner Mike Caskey. “I know where I stand. … I think that I would like to have moved further along.”

Caskey added a caveat that the pace of construction hinges on how much money is available.

Although the current group of commissioners has served together for two years, Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds also said he is unsure where others on the board stand. He said an architect hired by the county to oversee contraction is scheduled to be at today’s planning meeting.

“I think it’s time that we move on it,” Edds said. “It’s one thing to have all the ingredients, but now it’s time to bake the cake. … I expect that we will have a spirited discussion on where we go from here.”

Commissioner Judy Klusman said she’s comfortable with where West End Plaza stands.

“As a group, I think the commissioners agree that we need to do things as we can pay for them,” Klusman said. “I’m very comfortable with it with the exception of what the previous commission paid for the building.”

Klusman said she expects to make significant decisions about the building’s future during today’s retreat.

Progress moving county departments into the former mall stalled shortly after county commissioner elections in 2014. The new crop of commissioners canceled all contracts at West End Plaza. At the time, they said a web of contracts was not streamlined.

Currently. West End Plaza has fewer than 10 private tenants and two county offices. Because of rent revenue from the private tenants, operating expenses are covered.  In the past few years, there has even been a small profit despite the departure of some tenants in recent months.

Leasees with the highest monthly payments to Rowan County include Dollar Tree, at $12,891.02; Badcock Furniture, $10,416.68; and K&W Cafeteria, $9,000.

In addition to county offices and private tenants, the county has used part of West End Plaza for events. County Manager Aaron Church said the events space — an old J.C. Penney store — has been relatively popular “with little or no advertising.” The county has invested relatively little to improve the space but did purchase a large number of chairs and tables.

The events center has generated between $10,000 and $20,000 in revenue, according to the county.

Capital investments in West End Plaza eclipse any profit in daily operating expenses. With architecture and engineering fees included, construction costs total roughly $5.5 million under county ownership.

Yearly operating expenses are roughly $1.3 million, according to expense reports and budgets.

Asked about money invested in West End Plaza so far, Edds said, “It’s only a bad deal if you don’t do anything with it.”

County commissioners have repeatedly said that buying the former Salisbury Mall was cheaper than new construction in downtown Salisbury.

Caskey said commissioners have “put off” discussion about the future of West End Plaza. He said the county should move Social Services and the Health Department into the former mall. Educational space is also a possibility. He cited Henderson Independent High School as a possible tenant. The school board on Monday discussed whether to relocate that school because of problems with the current building.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.