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Josh Bergeron: County makes progress, but still more work to do at West End Plaza

In a sorely needed vote last week, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners pushed forward with their longtime plan to bring government departments to West End Plaza.

County government has owned the former mall for several years now, purchasing it in 2013, but has left it largely empty of permanent tenants.

The Board of Elections moved in relatively quickly, prompted in part by letters of concern from the state. Crammed into the Rufty Holmes Senior Center, Veterans Services wasn’t far behind.

But even moving forward with those brought simmering tensions about the facility to a boil, with Commissioner Craig Pierce in 2015 calling new commissioners — Greg Edds, Jim Greene and Judy Klusman — “the best commission that the City Council’s money can buy” after the board voted to cancel construction contracts at the facility.

And whether it was those tensions or, as Edds said last week, “other fish to fry,” things stalled quickly after that.

Would Social Services, another department running out of space quickly by all accounts, be next? Maybe the health department? Planning and zoning? The sheriff’s office?

Roughly five years after the mall’s purchase, it seems the answer is a collection of agricultural services, with commissioners voting Tuesday to ask ADW Architects to create a design that would have a base bid of $15 million and anything else being considered an “alternative” for bidding purposes.

Commissioners may not get all the bells and whistles they’d like for $15 million, but it would be an amount that they can afford, according to senior county staff. It would also be a long-delayed next step in county government’s plan to fill the $3.4 million West End Plaza with county departments.

The collection of agricultural services would be Rowan County Cooperative Extension, the Soil and Water Conservation District offices, the N.C. Forestry Service and the Farm Service Agency. A large events center would also be part of renovation plans.

The good news for progress is that four county commissioners appear to support the ag center plans  — Edds, Greene, Klusman and Mike Caskey. Pierce says he prefers a pay-as-you-go plan, without taking on $15 million or more in debt to finance the project.

And while he has a point — that debt would be in addition to the tens of millions commissioners have promised to the school system — he appears to be outnumbered.

Rowan County commissioners should not let this momentum go to waste. That doesn’t mean spending more money, but it should involve ironing out what comes next — something clearly undecided by the many other possibilities discussed Tuesday.

Edds suggested reviving the empty movie theater near the edge of the West End Plaza property. Pierce wants to focus on the sheriff’s office and suggested building an indoor gun range in the facility. Klusman tried to bring commissioners’ attention to Social Services and the Health Department — a conversation they’ve had before — only to be received with questions about whether the departments still needed space.

Meanwhile, County Manager Aaron Church was asked to draft a policy to allow the county to rent empty sections of the West End Plaza.

With only Church’s assignment not requiring money for renovations, commissioners must prioritize what departments get moved after the creation of an ag center. They’ve asked architects to draft plans before only not to follow through with them.

Unless the county plans to continue picking the next West End Plaza tenants in a haphazard manner, settling on a final plan would be wise. It would provide departments with a sense of certainty and create a rough idea of future costs.

Rowan County commissioners made much-needed progress last week, but there’s still more work to do.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

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