After a public hearing and a discussion that lasted almost 90 minutes, the McDowell County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to move forward with buying the former RockTenn building and property in downtown Marion for possible use as county office space.
“For us, it meets a lot of future needs,” said Commission Chairman David Walker.
In their action, the commissioners voted to have a due-diligence period of 60 days to allow the county’s environmental and structural engineers time to fully evaluate the approximately 110,000-square-foot building and the land, located at West Henderson and Burgin streets.
Property owner Gurley Storage, LLC has asked for a $5,000 earnest payment for this 60-day period. After the 60 days, the county will lease the building for one year and pay the remaining $95,000. This will give time for Chuck Hamrick, the county’s architect, to determine the best use for this property. After that one-year period, the county will purchase it for $650,000.
The plan to buy the building for $750,000 raised questions after The McDowell News reported it sold in December for just $275,000 to Gurley Storage, LLC. County officials said Monday evening they did not know it could be bought for that price.
Approximately 30 to 40 people filled the commission boardroom to speak or hear about this issue during the public hearing, which lasted for about 40 minutes. Walker informed those who wanted to speak that they each had three minutes and their questions would be answered.
“We want to give you answers here tonight,” said the commission chairman. “You deserve to know what we know.”
“This has been for sale for three years,” said Phil Brooks. “Where were our county commissioners when it was for sale?”
Brooks asked if the county had looked at the cost of renovations for this building. “Where are we going to get the money from?” he asked.
Diane Slater said she was very concerned about other needs in McDowell that have not been met, such as senior citizen housing.
“With this building, I am going to be concerned about the loss of tax revenue,” she said.
Ken Buckner asked why the county could not have worked with WestRock (the successor company of RockTenn) and bought it for as good a price as $275,000.
“We didn’t have our thinking caps on,” he said. “Where is our help economically?”
Chad Ray said the timing of this is “a little funny.” But he compared it with the county’s decision to purchase the former Universal plant and turn it into an advanced manufacturing center, which gives more space for McDowell Technical Community College and a place to train young people in careers in manufacturing.
“I thought the Universal building was a joke but when I went in there, it was something I could be proud of,” said Ray.
Darren Waugh said the issue is not with the building but how this has been handled. “My issue is with economic development and the lack of vision there,” he said.
Waugh said years ago the county bought land off of Ashworth Road for a second industrial park. “We spent money on Ashworth Road property that is essentially a swamp,” he added. “We should have known what was going on (with the RockTenn building).”
Chet Effler said county employees at the Administration Building and the Department of Social Services “are packed in like sardines.” The County Administration Building is 40 years old and is in need of expensive renovations.
Like Waugh, Effler said he had an issue with the McDowell Economic Development Association not keeping up with the possible sale of this property.
“I appreciate the vision the commissioners have in looking at that facility and taking on such a challenge of try to build our infrastructure up,” said Effler. “I would say that I think probably the question that most people are asking is an appropriate question. We are funding MEDA at a significant amount and I would think just looking at that budget item you are seeing that probably there is a salary pay in excess of $70,000 for that position to be on top of these type of properties. I understand that each of you are part-time commissioners. I think the question needs to be answered that simply in the future we need to make sure that if we are going to look at economic development that properties are continually checked, continually updated.”
“There is a real severe disconnect between economic development and the county,” said Chris Revis.
He added he would like to see more people get involved in issues such as this. “There is a lot of people who don’t have the means or they are too unhealthy or they are just afraid to speak their minds in this place,” said Revis to the commissioners. “You guys have got to let them know it is OK. That is what a participant democracy looks like.”
Barbara Gillespie asked if there were any environmental concerns with the RockTenn building.
“It’s a shame it wasn’t bought cheaper,” said David Patneaude. “Everybody in here can agree with that. The bad thing is somehow we didn’t know about it until the deal had been done.”
“If you have a vision, please share it with us sooner rather than later,” said Cynthia Britt.
Wesley Gurley from Gurley Storage, LLC attended the public hearing but did not speak to the board or the audience.
After hearing from the public, the commissioners responded to these residents’ questions and concerns.
Walker said last month he and the other commissioners were given a PowerPoint presentation by County Manager Ashley Wooten about all of the county’s buildings and their needs. The county has already made upgrades to the courthouse, including the installation of an elevator and a renovated lower level courtroom. The county has looked into installing a third courtroom at the courthouse and has heard from judicial officials about what needs to be done there. The county is also looking at expensive repairs to the parking garage behind the courthouse and on top of the Administration Building.
The DSS building is also crammed and more office space is needed. The probation and parole office is outgrowing its building on State Street.
“We had nowhere to grow unless you spend a whole lot of money,” said Walker.
Walker said the board was not aware that the former RockTenn building could be bought at an affordable price.
“We had no idea as a board this building could be bought,” said Walker. “I heard about it being sold for $275,000 in the paper.”
After that, county officials looked into it and realized that this building could be purchased from the new owner for $750,000. It has a tax value of $1.6 million.
“Why we didn’t know?” said Walker. “We’re not disputing that there’s some things that can be done to improve communication.”
He added the building was on the market for $3 million and then it went down to $1 million.
“I too have some of the same questions you do,” said Commissioner Lynn Greene. He asked for people not to blame him for anything that was done before he became a commissioner in December.
But he added “It’s a good building. There’s a lot of potential there.”
Commissioner Tony Brown said he was the one who pushed the others to go after this property.
“I own this idea to buy this building,” said Brown.
As for Gurley’s purchase, Brown said it “was a good business move on his behalf. We dropped the ball. I accept that. I had no idea we could get it for $275,000."
Brown added the county needs more office space and that many of the current facilities are inadequate. He described county employees huddled in blankets as they worked in offices “where you can see your breath.”
“I see it as a no-brainer,” said Brown. “I see it as a good business move on our part. I honestly believe it is the right choice.”
County officials said the former industrial building could be used to provide more office room for county employees and Department of Social Services staff or even rent other parts of it out for private businesses, like at the Universal building.
Commission Vice Chairman Barry McPeters said he didn’t like the timing either.
“I asked David (Walker) about it,” said McPeters. “He said we didn’t know.”
“I have a vision for what that building is going to be used for,” said McPeters. “We will discuss that. I would have bought it myself for $275,000.”
McPeters added a section of this building could be used for entertainment events.
As for the Ashworth Road property, McPeters said it is not a swamp.
“We need a road in there,” he added. “We’ve got it. It’s ready. We need to market it a little more.”
Commissioner Matthew Crawford said he would like to see a crowd like this every month at the meetings. “I’ve got to hear the people’s voices,” he added.
As for the county’s economic development, Crawford said “I am not going to deny there’s issues. They need to be addressed. Is the timing good? No.”
Crawford then made the motion to move forward with buying the former RockTenn building with the 60-day due-diligence period and the one-year lease. This motion passed unanimously.