The Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors held a special called meeting Wednesday morning to discuss concerns over the county’s recent decision to move forward with relocating county offices to the old hospital, located on Gamble Drive in Lincolnton.
Chamber of Commerce President Ken Kindley, along with Lincoln County Manager Tracy Jackson and Lincolnton City Manager Jeff Emory were also in attendance, serving as representatives for their respective sections of local government.
During the hour-long meeting, multiple board members expressed their concerns, and said they feared the loss of the county’s downtown presence would negatively impact Lincolnton’s attractiveness to consumers, creating financial losses for business owners. The cost comparison between constructing a new facility downtown versus renovating the old hospital facility also came into question.
County commissioners’ decided to move forward with the $17 million hospital renovation in June, and debated the plan during workshops to establish the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget. Throughout these discussions, commissioner James Klein appeared to be most vocal in his opposition of the decision, stating that it was not necessary for the hospital renovation to take place during this fiscal year. Since the budget was approved in June, a group of approximately 15 residents has joined forces to become “Citizens for Smart Spending.”
According to Jackson, the county first began looking into renovating the hospital in 2009, when county officials met with architect James C. Stewart from the firm Stewart, Cooper and Newell. Prior to 2009, the county had been actively working with Lincoln Economic Development Association to sell the facility and property. However, marketing efforts ceased in 2009 once the county decided to move forward with the renovation project.
“The $17 million figure is not just the cost of housing these county services, but for paying (employees) for these services they provide,” Jackson said. “It’s not just office space — it’s work space and public space.”
Kindley also shared his thoughts on the county’s departure plans, highlighting some of the city government and business leaders that had found alternative solutions to remain committed to their downtown locations through their needed renovations.
“Years ago, the City of Lincolnton made a commitment to remodel their City Hall and stay located in the heart of Lincolnton; so did the Lincoln Economic Development Association,” he said. “In addition, First Charter Bank, now Fifth Third Bank, built a new building at the corner of Main Street and Cedar Street. Two years ago, First Federal Savings Bank did the same thing and made a huge commitment to downtown Lincolnton by remodeling their existing building. Twenty-five years ago, the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln Cultural Center did the same thing. Why can’t Lincoln County government follow suit?”
In recent years, Emory visited Morganton, where he had the opportunity to speak with Burke County officials as well as city officials. In recent years, their county government opted to relocate, moving to a property outside of downtown Morganton. In his discussions with their city’s mayor, Emory learned that the move was “one of the worst things that could have happened to the city.”
“The Mayor of Morganton, Mel Cohen, has been mayor for years, and he was telling us how detrimental the county offices (moving out of downtown was) to their local businesses,” he said.
“We’re not abandoning downtown,” Jackson countered. “I don’t want anyone to think that. We will have a presence in downtown.”
At this time, the current departments that are slotted to move to the hospital include the health department, 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.
During the discussion, board member and vice chair Keith Gaskill questioned whether the county would be willing to consider constructing a new facility downtown if the hospital received inquiries on the property. He proposed aggressively advertising the old hospital with a commercial real estate company for 60-90 days, the amount of time he estimates it will take for the county to go through the necessary paperwork before they can begin construction.
“We have waited six years, so why can’t we ask the county to make one last ditch effort while they’re waiting?” he said.
“It truly depends on the Board of Commissioners and what the building could theoretically sell for,” Jackson responded. “But, we have serious needs, and we’ve got to do something.”
The Chamber’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to take a stance in requesting that the county commissioners take one final look into the cost differences between constructing a new downtown facility and renovating the old hospital facility before moving forward with renovations. During this time, the Chamber’s Board of Directors, along with the Citizens for Smart Spending group, would also work toward finding a way for all county offices to remain downtown. At this time, the Board of Directors and the City of Lincolnton are not opposing the county’s decision to relocate.
In order for the commissioners to move forward with the renovations, the North Carolina Local Government Commission requires the county commissioners hold a public hearing. From there, a formal application would need to be submitted to the LGC.
The North Carolina Department of State Treasurer’s website said, “a unit of government must seek Local Government Commission approval before it can borrow money. In reviewing each proposed borrowing, the LGC examines whether the amount being borrowed is adequate and reasonable for the projects and is an amount the unit can reasonably afford to repay. Second, once a borrowing is approved, the LGC is responsible for selling the debt (or bonds) on the unit’s behalf.”
The Local Government Commission will hold its next meeting on August 5 at the Albemarle Building, located on 325 North Salisbury Street in Raleigh.