The Citizens for Smart Spending, along with several downtown merchants and residents urged City Council members Thursday night to endorse their efforts to keep county offices within city limits.
Citizens for Smart Spending representative Johnny Lineberger was the first to address council members.
“When we learned that the county had their plans to move to the old hospital, a small group of us got together and just started looking at it and talking about it — looking at the timeframe and the expected cost,” he said. “And the more we looked at it, the more excited we got, because it’s a scary thought. Lincolnton is lucky in the respect that they’re the county seat, and we have forever had county government downtown. I think that when you step back and look at county government and the footprint that they have downtown, I think it makes you really stop and look at the economic impact that they have in town. Not just the folks that work for the county, but all of the folks in the county and surrounding counties and states that come into downtown Lincolnton to do business. So, we really are concerned that this may happen, and a lot of other folks are too.”
In a week’s time, the
organization was able to get more than 600 signatures from merchants and residents that expressed concerns over the county offices leaving downtown Lincolnton. According to research conducted by the Downtown Development Association and the Citizens for Smart Spending, the city could stand to lose as many as 5,000 people in foot traffic if the county offices were to be relocated outside of the city limits. The petition expressed that those who signed support the efforts to find an alternative idea for the county, to ensure the downtown area remains vibrant and alive with patrons.
“We understand that the county has needs, and we can appreciate that,” Lineberger said. “We also understand that downtowns historically, throughout the state, are very fragile economic entities, and an impact like this is not going to be anything to help our downtown. Going around and talking to folks who have invested in downtown, the sentiment is very strong. We don’t have all of the answers, and we don’t claim to. What we would like to do tonight is ask for your help to see if there are some viable alternatives, options that we can present that would keep the county downtown. We think there are a lot of options — there’s vacant land here owned by the city, vacant land here owned by the county, it’s all downtown. We just really would hope that you would take it to heart and soul search to see if there’s a way that you can stabilize the downtown area.”
The Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce also expressed support for the Citizens for Smarter Spending.
“The Chamber of Commerce is concerned with the moving of county jobs from downtown to the old hospital, its future costs and the economic impact of this move on downtown businesses,” chairman David Boyles said. “We would like to see council support the Citizens for Smart Spending and any alternative plans for this move. If we look at our successful neighbor, Davidson, its council has a policy that for any important decision that comes to a vote, they must answer this question, ‘How will this affect our grandchildren? How will this impact us in the next 20 years?’”
Downtown Development Association chair Brooke Sherrill spoke with council members as well, citing an anecdote from Catawba County, which opted to relocate their county government offices outside of the county seat, Newton, several years ago.
“About three or four years ago, the DDA did extensive research, speaking with other towns and getting their input on what has happened in their towns when county offices have moved out of town” she said.
“Our county offices moved one mile from our downtown,” Sherrill read. “Not far at all. But, that small distance made all the difference in the world. Because many of the attorneys that worked within the county justice center had already established offices in the downtown area professionally, Newton was not affected. As a matter of fact, professional businesses are what have helped downtown Newton survive the transition. We did however lose so much foot traffic that our bigger retailers dropped within a very short period of time. This was a huge detriment. It took nearly a decade to bring enough professional businesses back in to make up for the loss of tax base. Our downtown is 90 percent professional at this time, and retailers are not coming to a downtown that lacks foot traffic. The retailers that we do have left are small businesses, and quite frankly are not strong enough to draw the foot traffic that used to be in our downtown. They are struggling and they are bitter over the change in customer base. We are struggling with this situation, and it is one that will most likely never go away.”
Sherrill said that, since the relocation, the county government has become isolated, making it harder to get it involved in the city’s programs and festivals.
“I feel like we are a lot like Newton in our makeup, and of our small businesses being downtown,” she said. “We do have a strong professional base, so I feel like we’re almost on that cliff, I would say. We’ve worked so hard to enhance the downtown and bring in more businesses and retail, and I would hate to see a backlash or impact like this.”
After hearing from several community and business leaders, City Council members unanimously voted to have City Manager Jeff Emory draft a letter to county officials in support of keeping the offices in downtown Lincolnton.
“This could be dire to our downtown (area),” councilman Martin Eaddy said. “We need to find opportunities to keep our county offices downtown.”
City Council members plan to continue this discussion at their Aug. 27 Strategic Planning Meeting.
It appears that city and county government leaders may soon reach an agreement regarding a water deal.
“I have met with the county staff, and we are finalizing a proposed contract currently,” Emory said.
The Times-News reported that county commissioners proposed purchasing water at a rate of $1.15 per 1,000 gallons of water during a term of 10 years, with a rolling five-year notice. The minimum amount would be 0.3 million gallons per day, with a maximum purchase amount of 2.5 million gallons per day.
At this time, Emory believes the county has plans to discuss the final proposal at an Aug. 18 meeting, with City Council discussing it at the meeting on Aug. 27
“We’re shooting for a Sept. 1 start-up date, and if some reason that doesn’t happen, then by Oct. 1,” Emory said. “Things are looking very positive, and I want to thank the county for their cooperation during this period. I think we’re really doing something that will be beneficial to both the residents of Lincolnton and Lincoln County.”