Editorial: Progress needed for West End Plaza

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2019

It was always wishful thinking that West End Plaza’s purchase would be an inexpensive, quick fix to office space issues.

Sure, it might end up being cheaper than a future without the former mall, as county officials and architects argued while they drafted plans, but county departments badly needed office space. That reportedly was the impetus for a 2013 decision to buy the former Salisbury Mall for $3.4 million — a choice that a new crop of commissioners after being elected in 2014 chose not to reverse.

The cost estimate was once $10 million over the course of a decade. Then, in June 2016, it was to be $21.26 million at West End Plaza and more than $27 million once county department space elsewhere was included.

Commissioners on Monday heard a proposal from ADW Architects that moving several agricultural agencies and creating events space in an empty Belk’s department store would cost $10.62 million. The architecture firm also provided estimates for aesthetic, exterior improvements that would bring the total to $18.93 million.

Those estimates do not include contingency costs; furniture, fixtures and equipment; designer fees; and owner soft costs. Architects said those represent another 20% — roughly $3.79 million — on top of their estimate.

The ballooning costs are due, in part, to the improved economy. That commissioners have waited to pull the trigger on moving a large swath staff to the former mall hasn’t helped. Commissioners bought the mall for a reason — office space for county departments — and so far they have failed to follow through. The only notable items have been roof replacement and moving in Board of Elections and Veterans Services.

Debt emerged Monday as one option to pay for ADW’s proposal. And judging by conversation in Monday’s meeting, the county will be able to handle debt payments for an $18 million project in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2020.

Another bit of good news: Thanks to prudent planning, there has been an annual allocation since its purchase toward a savings account for West End Plaza renovations. Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said there will be roughly $2.8 million available by July 1.

A third positive development: After only talking intermittently about West End Plaza during the previous few years, commissioners said Monday they would hold a workshop in August about the project and how it fits in with other plans.

That meeting is wise because the debt total for upcoming West End Plaza renovations, whether $10 million, $20 million or something else will be in addition to tens of millions commissioners just last month promised to the Rowan-Salisbury School System for capital improvements. Commissioner Craig Pierce also indicated the county’s airport will need money soon, too.

It’s critical that commissioners prioritize the most important projects and ensure that any new debt payments will be sustainable during an economic downtown. The natural cycle of the American economy makes a downturn likely to occur eventually.

Pierce said he prefers a pay-as-you-go approach — only renovating office space for now — whereas other commissioners, excluding Jim Greene, who was not present, seemed to prefer moving forward with a larger chunk of what ADW proposed.

Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said the community needs something to get excited about, referencing the meeting space. Commissioners can move forward with the project or go backward, Edds said.

At this point, any decision would be beneficial. West End Plaza will be an expensive project, but commissioners didn’t buy the former mall to house two county departments, some nonprofits and occasional events in a former J.C. Penney’s store.