Buncombe County oversees many services, including health, elections, the Sheriff’s Office and the court system. All those agencies and more, with their attendant staff and paperwork, have to have somewhere to go, and as the county’s grown, the amount of vacant space available has dwindled.
At the county commissioners’ Jan. 9-10 retreat, they tasked County Manager Wanda Greene with finding a space to consolidate most county services—whether it’s an existing property such as Biltmore Square Mall (currently for sale) or a new structure entirely—all without raising property taxes, she explained at a Power Lunch forum held by the Council of Independent Business Owners.
“In the courthouse, we are absolutely slammed,” Greene told the assembled CIBO members. “Down in the Department of Social Services, in offices that would usually hold one person, we’ve got four or even six.”
But with the county already required to build a $24 million “life-safety tower” in the courthouse to accommodate any future modification to the courts, the combined effort is proving a challenge in a down economy.
“The week after the retreat, I spent the whole week with people calling me to say, ‘Here’s an option.’ About 20 properties popped up, and there were some good ones,” noted Greene. “We’ve narrowed it down to those 20 options, and we’re reviewing them now. There’s a lot of moving pieces: We have to realign leases; we have to get the money. We haven’t made a decision yet. Biltmore Square Mall is one. There are others. We’ve even had people call us and say, ‘We’ve got 20 or 30 vacant acres.’”
Whether the end result is bought or built, the county is looking at spending more than $100 million to consolidate its offices.
One CIBO member asked if the county was seeking any federal stimulus money to help build or buy these new facilities.
“We’ve asked for some, but the project needs to be ‘shovel-ready,’” said Greene. “We have enough done on the planning of the life-safety tower and the [planned] public-safety training facility that we’ve asked for some stimulus money for that.”
Another member quipped, “One last question: How big’s that bottle of aspirin in your office?”
“Not nearly big enough these past two weeks,” she replied with a chuckle.
CIBO President John Carroll praised Greene’s efforts, saying, “She’s practically an honorary member.”