County gives approval to ‘Idea Center’ at West End Plaza

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, August 8, 2017

SALISBURY — After some debate, the Rowan County commissioners on Monday approved a development at West End Plaza that includes a business incubator, museum, digital media lab and cafe.

Known as the Rowan County Idea Center, the project would involve partnerships among Catawba College, county government and private businesses. Much remains undecided about the Idea Center, but its basic components would include a business incubator of sorts, a museum about entrepreneurship, a co-working space, a spot for companies to create prototypes of products, a cafe and a digital media lab for Catawba College’s communications program.

The idea received unanimous support from the county commissioners, and it received praise from several prominent local residents, too.

“I feel very strongly and I’m very excited that if we can do something like this with the mall, it would just be super,” said Go Burrito restaurant owner Mikey Wetzel. “I just think that what is proposed here at the mall is what other communities have, and I just wish that Rowan County had it too.”

Catawba College Business School Dean Jay Abraham was also among the supporters.

“What I see as the opportunity here is kind of an end-to-end solution to bring entrepreneurship to the forefront in Rowan County,” Abraham said.

He said Catawba’s digital media lab would mostly be built to aid college programs, but it could also be available to the general public.

To help start the Rowan County Idea Center, commissioners on Monday voted to allocate $145,000 to the project. South Carolina-based E2 Advisors, which presented the project, said the money would be used for marketing, design, program development and project management.

In addition to the allocation, the commissioners also asked the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce to manage the Idea Center’s startup.

The project would require at least 39,000 square feet of West End Plaza’s 320,000 square feet, according to E2 Advisors’ presentation.

No county commissioner said he opposes the Idea Center. However, Commissioner Craig Pierce reminded the board of a prior vote not to allow leases until the completion of a master plan for West End Plaza.

“So, if we’re going to enter into new leases, which is what this will require, then we need to do what we’ve already said we were going to do, which is get a complete master plan that will include their project if that’s what we’re going to do,” Pierce said.

Explaining that prior vote, in which Pierce was a no, commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said it came after a number of nonprofit groups requested space at West End Plaza.

“No offense to the good work done by those folks, but that’s not what we wanted (West End Plaza) to turn out to be,” he said.

Initially, Pierce said he wanted to table the idea until county government completes a floor plan for West End Plaza, which was purchased in 2013 as a space for county government offices. After some discussion, he offered a motion to allow leases on a case-by-case basis. That motion passed unanimously.

Between Pierce’s initial criticism and the vote, commissioners dove into a discussion about the use of space at West End Plaza. The five commissioners generally agreed that parts of the mall closest to Thelma’s Down Home Cooking and the main entrance would be used by nongovernment entities. Meanwhile, parts of the building close to the Rowan County Board of Elections would be used for government purposes.

At one point, Commissioner Mike Caskey asked about part of a draft floor plan showing a cafe occupying the current offices of Rowan County Veterans Services. He asked what that would mean for the county department. Representatives of E2 Advisors said the floor plan presented Monday was not final and could be altered.

There were other logistical questions, too, such as who would manage the Rowan County Idea Center once it’s open. Representatives of E2 Advisors said it’s possible private companies could be brought in to manage aspects of the project that county officials did not want to handle.

The total cost associated with the Rowan County Idea Center would be about $3.9 million, according to E2 Advisors’ presentation. That  includes a three-year, cumulative operating loss of $832,000. Private businesses and Catawba College could defray some of those costs. By the fifth year, E2 Advisors said, the Rowan County Idea Center would be profitable.

The projected opening date for the Idea Center is August 2018. The entrepreneurship museum would not open until 2019, according to Monday’s presentation.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.