Still facing severe space crunch, county seeks stimulus money

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.”

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One thought on “Still facing severe space crunch, county seeks stimulus money

  1. Having covered Buncombe County government as a reporter from 2002 to 2007, I offer the following observations:
    1) County Manager Wanda Greene told commissioners that all of the county’s old paper files had been digitized a couple of years ago. She said it freed up a lot of space.
    2) Greene has repeatedly emphasized the idea that she has pared down the staff and made the operation more efficient over her years in the office.
    3) Greene pushed through the sale of land to developer Stewart Coleman (Parkside). At least three of the commissioners seemed not to know what they were selling at the time, though Bill Stanley was very aware and possibly involved, and supported the sale.
    4) Now the extremely troubled Biltmore Square Mall is for sale and suddenly Greene sees a crying need for 400,000 square feet of space. Although the Mall is touted as 500,000 square feet, developer Rusty Pulliam and partners only own 390,000 of it (Belks and Dillards own their own stores). Hmm. And while they paid $20 million for a somewhat successful mall, they are “only” asking $38 million of the county.
    Does anyone else smell a rat?

    By the way, most county offices are most convenient to most county citizens when they are located at the hub, both for auto and transit system travel. There is no logical reason to move most of the services out of Asheville.

    On the other hand, some services (such as those provided by DSS and the Health Department) may be better handled by decentralization. Supposedly DSS is the department most in need of space. How about adding a couple of satellite offices? With computer networks (and believe me, the county has a superb one) the idea that everyone has to work under one tent is pretty lame.

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