- Buncombe County Board of Commissioners March 16, 2010
- County may accelerate plans for new courthouse
- Asheville airport adds daily flights to Dallas, Tampa
A sometimes contentious exchange between District Attorney Ron Moore and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton kicked off the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' March 16 meeting. The flap concerned the proposed "life-safety tower" — a planned renovation of the top five floors of the county courthouse.
Before the commissioners had even had a chance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Moore took to the lectern to argue that taxpayer money would be better spent on a new structure rather than on renovating the existing one. "The overwhelming need is to build a building that will house adequately the numbers of people we continue to deal with [in the district courts]. That's the only thing that will help us," he declared.
Citing the work of the Judicial Facilities Task Force — appointed in 2007 and charged with projecting the system's needs over the next 20 years — Moore said the planned renovations wouldn't do the job. "I've been told we can get maybe two 75- to 90-space courts. That won't help the district courts. I need some 150- to 200-space courtrooms — at least two. I need a third one that seats probably 100 to 150. That's the only way."
The DA also voiced frustration that he and other task-force members hadn't been consulted about the life-safety tower until plans were already in place.
"I don't know if there was a miscommunication somewhere, but none of us were aware that we were moving forward with a plan to build a safety tower first," he said. "If the question were asked to the committee — 'If you have 25 million bucks to spend, what would you spend it on?' — I think the overwhelming consensus would be, 'Build a building to get as many criminal and other courts out as soon as possible.'"
Creighton immediately rose to defend the current plan, citing both safety and budget concerns. To make his case, he read excerpts from a letter by Jim Young of the Sanford, N.C.-based American South General Contractors, whom Creighton said he'd asked to weigh in on the issue. "Maintaining the safety of both the construction workers and the public will be much more difficult if Phase 2 [a new building] is completed first," wrote Young. "Completing Phase 2 first will result in significant cost increases and a longer construction period."
A main issue cited by Young was that any new building would probably hamper the contractor's ability to access the existing courthouse via Davidson Street and the annex parking lot. The current plan, he wrote, targets those areas as "vital demolition and construction support space" that could also accommodate two cranes during the tower renovations.
"All of a sudden our ability to build the tower in less than a year becomes hampered, because we'd only have one crane instead of two," asserted Creighton. "It's just a matter of dollars and cents — it becomes very difficult to put the life-safety tower on once there's a building that faces College Street and blocks Davidson."
In response to the heated exchange, Commissioner Carol Peterson asked that the afternoon's agenda be amended to allow for more discussion of the issue. As the meeting got under way, a resolution authorizing a construction manager to negotiate the project with contractors reignited the debate, this time with several commissioners weighing in.
Vice Chair Bill Stanley proposed approving the resolution and instructing the construction manager to draft a plan that would enable the county to build the tower and a new courthouse simultaneously.
After Peterson seconded the motion, Commissioner Holly Jones seemed ambivalent, praising the "compromise" proposed by Stanley but expressing doubts about the county's ability to fund both projects at the same time. "I don't think any of us want to spend $80 million, which was the price tag of the big thing at the very beginning," said Jones.
But Peterson, acknowledging that "it will take some financing that needs to be worked on," made an impassioned plea on behalf of renovating the building, recalling a time when she and both her parents all worked in its halls. "That courthouse is the symbol of Buncombe County," she declared. "I'm extremely supportive of the motion Mr. Stanley has made."
With board Chair David Gantt also enthusiastically supporting the idea, the resolution was eventually approved 4-0 (Commissioner K. Ray Bailey was absent).
In other business, Asheville Regional Airport Director Lew Bleiweis announced that the airport will soon offer daily nonstop flights to two additional cities: Dallas/Fort Worth and Tampa. This could have a big impact on the region, he explained, as each additional daily flight pumps approximately $9 million a year into the economy.
Other recent airport developments include a new art gallery displaying work by Western North Carolina artists and a planned concession area offering locally produced food and beverages. "Hopefully we'll have a bar that will feature our local breweries," said Bleiweis.
The plans are part of a $10.5 million renovation of the terminal funded largely by stimulus money. "Out of all the airports that got stimulus grants in the state of North Carolina, Asheville got the most money," noted Bleiweis.
"I love some of the innovative ideas to showcase our region," said Jones in response to the photos in the PowerPoint presentation. "When you see that dirt, it translates to jobs."
[Freelance writer Jake Frankel lives in Asheville.]