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Plan to move county offices taking shape

ELIZABETH HEFFNER
Staff Writer

Plans are once again moving forward to relocate several county offices, after upcoming renovations to the site of a former hospital on Gamble Drive in Lincolnton.
County commissioners voted 3-1, with commissioner James Klein in opposition, during their 2014-2015 budget workshop meetings to resume the $17 million project.
“We asked for $17 million in next year’s budget,” County Manager Tracy Jackson said. “That’s money that would have to be borrowed. We have to go to the state — the local government commission — to get approval to go out on the market and obtain a loan. So, it’s a process there. Our finance director will look for the best rates and would report back to the board for approval…this is something we could have back to the board in two to three months.”
According to Jackson, the county first began looking into renovating the hospital in 2009, when officials met with architect James C. Stewart from the firm Stewart, Cooper and Newell.
“His company did a study basically looking at the county’s space needs for about 30 years,” he said. “He came back with recommendations about the old hospital as far as how much square footage to use per department and some suggestions about which department should be located in different parts of the hospital.”
While the recession delayed the county from continuing to actively pursue the renovations in 2009, the rising facility needs for county departments required county commissioners take action.
“Part of why we resumed pursuing it now was driven by facility needs,” Jackson said. “The courts were having space needs, and the (department) buildings were getting older and deteriorating. The longer you put (renovation) off, the more it’s going to cost.
“Basically, we’ve taken the old plans and knocked the dust off of them, because they have been sitting for a while, and looked at our current needs — what would make the most sense in terms of which department has the greatest need in terms of relocation,” he said. “Right now, it looks like the health department. They’re in an older building that has a lot of maintenance issues. It could actually save the county money in the long run if they relocate, instead of having to maintain their current building.”
At this time, the other departments Jackson anticipates will be relocated to the hospital are building maintenance, cooperative extension, county administration, elections, emergency management, environmental health, finance, fire marshal, human resources, parks and recreation, planning and inspections, public works and the soil and water/natural resources department.
Since several years have passed since the renovation plan was first designed, Jackson and the architect team are working together to reexamine the original plans to determine what aspects should be altered.
“It has sat long enough that we need to go back and ensure that we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “The hospital was built to operate on a 24-7 schedule, where our use is going to be pretty much Monday-Friday office-type hours…and with the health department there, we’ll have clinic hours too. We’re trying to go back and make some good choices in order to save some money and use the space most efficiently. The best thing to do is to use the existing space as much as possible instead of reconstructing from scratch.”
While some citizens have expressed concerns over county departments abandoning their downtown residence, Jackson believes the impact will be minimal.
“This is a long-range project, and it will probably take three to six years before everything would be complete,” he said. “I know there’s concern about that, but I think that it’s going to take place over a long enough period of time that the impact should be minimal. Mostly, the spaces that will be vacated will be occupied by other offices. So, we’re still going to have a busy and vibrant downtown.”
Jackson also added that the Citizens Center would still utilize the auditorium as a public venue for the citizens to use.
At this time, the tentative list of departments expected to remain downtown are clerk of court, adult community corrections, district attorney, guardian ad litem, information technology, judge’s offices, juvenile court counselors, library, magistrate’s office, public works maintenance, register of deeds, bailiffs, senior services, tax administration, tax GIS/mapping and tax reappraisal.
“Just from what I have read and the information the county has given us, this move was part of their long range plan,” Lincolnton city manager Jeff Emory said. “We knew this was coming. We hate to lose anyone from downtown, but it sounds like there will still be a strong county presence. From what I understand, they’ve studied and done a lot of research on their needs, and this relocation is in the best interest for the county and its citizens.”

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