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Commissioner candidates talk future of space at West End Plaza

SALISBURY — With race for Rowan County commissioner underway, one ongoing issue includes what to do with the vacant space at West End Plaza.

Former China Grove Mayor Lee Withers is challenging incumbents Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey in the race for two spots on the county commissioner board. Voters can make their choice Election Day on March 3, or during the current early voting period.

The county purchased the mall space at West End Plaza in 2013 for $3.4 million. It financed the building, formerly known as the Salisbury Mall, in 2015 with a loan of $3.95 million that also paid for some renovations, scheduled to be paid off by 2025. All three candidates view the space as an opportunity to bring in new business. But final decisions on what to do with the space, and how to fund it, is yet to be determined.

In September, the board voted to use a portion of the mall as a designated agricultural center, with office and event space.

Caskey said the benefit of having an agriculture center there would mean agencies like the Agricultural Extension Service would no longer have to share a building with emergency medical services. He also said potential uses for the events space could include items like veterans dinners. The rest of the mall could be reserved for the Department of Social Services and/or the county health department, both of which are expected to require a significant portion of the mall if they move there. Caskey said he could see it serving as a full government complex within a decade, he said.

Pierce said the board initially had plans to lease out spaces for a “public-private business incubator” to help people start businesses. The space would have provided reduced rent prices for business startups as it’s “not fair to use the same lease rates when helping people get started.” But after the board changed in membership in 2014, Pierce said, that idea wasn’t pursued.

Withers said the issue of what to do with the space has been “a tough conversation since it was bought.” The agricultural center, he said, does a lot to educate residents and youth. But the board has to ensure it’s a good investment and provides a good return on investment.

Both Pierce and Caskey are campaigning on their records of improvements since their first year on the board in 2012.

Pierce said Rowan County was entirely different when he joined the board, adding that the economy was in a “downward spiral.”

“The board we have is working well with each other and getting things accomplished,” Pierce said.

Pierce, who retired after owning a construction business, has served as a member of the Rowan County Planning Board and chairman of the Airport Advisory Board. The quality of animal services was a key issue when he joined the board. And, Pierce said, he worked with the Rowan County Animal Shelter to stop the euthanization of animals with a gas chamber. He cites such activities as a determining factor in Chewy.com’s ultimate decision to locate a fulfillment center near Salisbury.

Caskey said he’s “been a good servant for the community,” and that it’s been an honor to serve the citizens.

Caskey, a current member of the U.S. Army Reserves, has a public safety background as a police officer in Charlotte. He credits the board with improvements to local Emergency Medical Services, including a new station in Rockwell and the repurposing of part of Cleveland Elementary for an EMS station. He also said the board has helped to reduce local paramedic shifts from 24 hours to 12 hours, revamped local rescue squads and added positions to local sheriff’s departments. Veteran services is another area Caskey said he focuses on and another he says the current board has helped to expand.

He is a past member of the Rowan-Salisbury School Board, the Rowan County Planning Board and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Currently, he serves on the Rescue Squad Board, the Rowan Public Library Board, Enochville Volunteer Fire Department Board and the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center Board.

Challenger Withers said his past 12 years of municipal experience can bring new insight, experience and talents to the board. He served as China Grove’s mayor from 2015-19. Before serving as mayor, Withers was a China Grove town councilman for eight years. He also owns 3C’s consulting firm and was previously a regional sales manager for Husqvarna, which makes outdoor power products.

Withers said he sees areas in the county that need “help and encouragement,” and that “more people at the table” are needed when looking at all the ways economic development can affect communities.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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