Commissioners open to deal for old DSS building

Jun. 17, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

County officials are still exploring the idea of working with the Self-Help credit union to renovate the former Department of Social Services building on East Main Street.

Self-Help briefed County Commissioners on their ideas for a project that would cost about $10 million and create ground-floor retail and upstairs office space for nonprofits or small businesses.

A credit union executive vice president, Tucker Bartlett, said Self-Help figures to put about $5 million of its own money into the effort and raise another $3.2 million using federal “new market” tax credits.

The remaining $1.7 million would come from “reaching out to foundations and the public sector,” Bartlett said.

This week’s briefing was the commissioners’ first public discussion of an idea that surfaced in March, when Self-Help and county officials confirmed the lender had taken an interest in the building’s fate.

Going into last winter, county officials were proceeding on the assumption they’d demolish the 1966-vintage structure and replace it with a “civic plaza,” at an overall price of about $1.9 million.

But the plaza idea fell flat when officials held public meetings to sound out residents and business leaders.

They “heard the message loud and clear that citizens did not feel it was a good idea to tear the building down and create a vacuum on East Main Street,” Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said.

She added that many who participated urged officials to “let the private sector take a stab at it.”

Self-Help is working with local architect Michael Hining, who unlike county engineers is confident the building can be successfully renovated.

“I was 14 years old when that building was built,” Hining told the commissioners. “I’ve got a few extra years in me and I think [it] does too.”

Hining said the building’s interior deficiencies include a “warren of corridors” that leaves most of the offices without any natural light, and a utility layout that means each floor doesn’t necessary have bathrooms for both genders.

Bartlett, meanwhile, explained Self-Help’s interest results from owning buildings downtown that between them have a 99.5 percent occupancy rate. That leaves it unable to accommodate new tenants.

“We’re approached every week by nonprofits looking for affordable office space,” he said. “We’re having to turn them away and say no.”

He stressed that Self-Help intends to return the former DSS headquarters to the tax rolls, which would yield local governments about $70,000 a year more in property tax revenue if tax assessors value the renovated structure at $5 million.

But one commissioner, Fred Foster, said he’s not eager to see the county give up title to the building.

“What you’re proposing is fine, but we need to look at a public-private partnership,” he told Bartlett. “We don’t need to give away property the county already owns.”

His colleagues seemed willing to consider parting with it. They did, however, make a point of saying the county will have to follow state law, even if that eventually means opening the door to other potential buyers.

“That’s the due diligence work staff needs to do,” County Manager Wendell Davis said when Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked whether the county has to take competing bids or proposals. “There’s a lot of work to get there.

“Whatever we do, we’re obviously going to follow the law,” Reckhow said in response. “We’ll see how that plays out.”