Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Leaders of Southwestern Community College first approached the Macon County Board of Commissioners in 2016 about the decision construct a new burn building training facility in Macon County as part of the Public Safety Training Center.
The burn building, which is located in the Industrial Park, is a three-story pre-cast concrete and masonry brick structure supported by a slab on grade concrete foundation.
Cost to rebuild the burn building has varied from year to year since 2016, with money being put into appraisals, designs, assessments, evaluations and more. The original projection was that a new burn building would cost $2 million, with Macon County providing $500,000 toward that total cost.
The burn building is now 30 years old, with Macon County last providing funding to replace burn panels in 2016 after flooding damage.
In addition to the burn building being used by SCC students, it is the only training facility west of Asheville for local fire departments to utilize for mandatory training. Departments are able to use the facility for training needs, free of charge. Macon County is home to 284 volunteer firefighters who have access to the facility for training.
SCC Board of Trustees voted to place the burn building replacement on the priority list to receive funding from the Connect NC Bond, which was passed by referendum in 2016 in a statewide vote. Revenue from the bond can cover 100 percent of renovation projects, but counties are required to pay a portion of new construction projects.
Originally in 2016, SCC estimated replacing the burn building would cost $1.9 million of the bond revenue with Macon County being required to contribute another $475,000.
In an attempt to potentially save taxpayer dollars, Macon leaders wanted the engineer to review whether the existing building could be renovated, rather than completely rebuilt. The engineering firm reported that it could not propose or recommend repairs with any degree of engineering certainty to extend the building’s life by 10 years.
“The building is subject to harsh conditions that will result in further deterioration of the masonry brick walls and recast concrete panels. [It] is doubtful any proposed remedial work would extend the service life for an additional 10 years,” the report said.
During discussions at the time, Commissioner Ronnie Beale noted his concern with how frequently the building is used by agencies outside of Macon County. At the time it was anticipated that Macon County would be responsible for the $475,000 match required to rebuild the facility, even though outside agencies using the building for training make up the majority of those who use the facility.
“Basically, we are going to have to pay the bill for this, and fire departments from six or seven counties come to use it for free,” said Beale in 2016.
While SCC has identified a burn building as a priority, nothing in place mandates such a building. The community college’s fire training program does rely on it for the required course work.
During the November meeting of the board of commissioners in 2016, the conversation on the burn building continued, but focus shifted. SCC informed Macon County that SCC deemed that a science building in Jackson County was a priority for the Connect NC Bond funding, and Jackson County commissioners would be providing matching funds through an education specific sales tax for the project.
Because the community college’s priority shifted to the Jackson County campus, commissioners learned that more financial contribution was needed by Macon County commissioners for the burn building since SCC planned to put more money into the Jackson campus.
The new burn building was still projected to cost around $2 million, and like the project in Jackson County, would require a match from Macon County to utilize bond funds. While the state only requires the county to provide a 25 percent match for capital projects funded through the bond, SCC asked Macon County to consider providing the college with 42 percent of the funding to build the burn building they had designed.
SCC also wanted the 42 percent to be cash, while Macon County wanted to use other avenues, such as property to meet the 25 percent match.
Originally, SCC’s plan was to construct a new burn building in the same location of the current building, at the Industrial Park in Macon County. No new property would be needed in that scenario, however, SCC’s master plan, actually moves the burn building to the current SCC Macon Campus over the next few years.
Macon County Manager Derek Roland noted that the county owns the property around SCC’s Macon Campus so to fall in line with the college’s master plan, and to meet the state required 25 percent match, Roland proposed the county giving SCC 12 acres of land rather than a cash match.
SCC’s Dr. Don Tomas said that while the land would be appreciated, what SCC needs is dollars to fund the project.
From November 2016 until August 2017, various studies and appraisals were conducted and the debate back and forth continued. By August 2017, SCC had $1.5 million in state funds to put into a new burn building on the Macon campus. By 2017, Macon County had confirmed that a portion of Macon County’s $500,000 could come from matching funds in the form of land and commissioners agreed to move forward with getting an appraisal on six acres of land on the Macon campus of SCC to go toward the county’s matching requirements.
Both Macon County and SCC were in agreement that the six acres would be sufficient to house the new Public Safety Training Facility and that Macon County would be providing a 25 percent match for the Connect NC Bond, with a portion of that funding coming from the land donation.
By 2018, additional evaluations and land surveys, as well as changes in design to the proposed burn building, the cost of Macon County’s commitment to SCC for a new burn building went from $500,000 in a mix of cash and land to Macon County Commissioners voting to approve up to $1.3 million in the next fiscal year to be used as matching funds for the project.
By February 2018, the projected cost of the project was now approximately $2.7 million. The SCC Board of Trustees approved the use of $1.4 million of “Connect NC” Bond money from the state and Macon County Commissioners approved $1.3 million to go toward construction costs. Previously Macon County transferred six acres of land adjacent to SCC’s Cecil Groves Center and the Macon County Library in Franklin for the project. The value of the land, which was $335,000, was credited by the state toward the matching requirement for the use of the NC Connect Bond money and any future state funds that might require matching funds from the county.
Macon County Commissioners made the decision to spend $30,000 to contract with a firm to conduct a Space Needs Analysts to get a comprehensive look at all county buildings and space and evaluate availability and needs to rank future projects.
The report looked at 26 different buildings currently owned by the county and provided recommendations for re-use, renovation, and/or demolition when considering growth projects over the next 20 years.
The report did find that in addition to needing a few new facilities, the county is also well positioned to consolidate and rework several existing properties to ensure efficient ongoing operations.
The analysis also suggested relocating the housing department and renovating the National Guard Armory building, which was gifted to Macon County. The building, which came at no cost to Macon County, was appraised at $2.9 million.
Like everything else, when the COVID19 pandemic hit, the review of the Space Needs Analysis took to the back burner and is anticipated to be taken up by the county commission during their mid-year review in January. The National Guard Armory became essential for the county during 2020 being used for multiple things to help during the pandemic.
Dr. Tomas spoke to Macon County Commissioners Tuesday night and asked for the burn building to once again be relocated and the project be moved from the anticipated new Public Safety Complex at the Cecil Groves Macon Campus, back to the Macon County Industrial Park.
Commission Chair Jim Tate suggested that Macon County enter into a longterm 25 year lease with SCC to allow them to use the National Guard Armory for classrooms and space for the Public Safety Training Center. Tate said that ideally, the lease of that building could replace some of the $1.3 million allocated as the county’s matching grant for the Connect NC Bond to construct the burn building in a gravel lot near the current burn building.
Beale said he was adamantly against that decision as the National Guard Armory has proven to be beneficial to Macon County residents during the pandemic and because the county just came in possession of the building this year with the potential use and benefit to taxpayers still unknown.
Commissioner Gary Shields, who sits on the SCC Board of Trustees agreed with Beale and asked to table a decision regarding the armory until the county could review the Space Needs Analysis to see what is best use for that space.
Tate said that Macon County has been debating the burn building for years and did not want to prolong a decision any longer and pushed for a vote.
Commissioner Karl Gillespie, who has formerly served as a board member on the Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees and whose last meeting as a commissioner was Tuesday night, made a motion to enter into a lease with SCC for the Armory. Commissioner Paul Higdon seconded the motion and Tate voted in favor as well.
Beale and Shields voted against the measure. Both Beale and Shields said that leasing the armory may be the best use of the property, but giving away a $2.9 million building without more research seemed premature.
“We don’t even know if the lease or the building can be used as the county’s match for SCC’s bond to build the burn building,” said Beale. “If it can’t then we would still need to give them the $1.3 million as well.”
Tate noted that statutorily the county is responsible for providing maintenance and upkeep on SCC facility buildings and it’s well known that the armory needs repairs, so if all or part of the $1.3 million is still needed, the county’s contribution for repairs to the armory could potentially serve that purpose.
Shields said while he agreed, he would prefer to wait until the county knows for sure.
Beale also noted that the value of a $2.9 million gift to the taxpayers being given away to the college, which serves a small portion of Macon County taxpayers did not seem fair, noting that even if the building was not used by the county and another department, the sale of the building could generate revenue for taxpayers. The sale of the property to a private buyer would also mean the property, valued at $2.9 million would being generate a hefty annual property tax, which currently the county does not benefit from as SCC property and county owned property do not contribute to the property tax base.
Despite Beale and Shields’ objections, the motion passed.
Macon County will lease the armory building to SCC for 25 years. The burn building will now be constructed near the original building at the Industrial Park, and in the event that the lease cannot account for the $1.3 million matching portion for the Connect NC Bond funding, the county will provide the funding through renovations and repairs to the armory.