11/16/08 — County will eye building purchase for relocating several departments

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County will eye building purchase for relocating several departments

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 16, 2008 2:00 AM

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith Tuesday will recommend county commissioners authorize $850,000 for the purchase of the old Masons Department Store property at 1016 N. William St.

The appropriation would come from the county's fund balance.

The site eventually could be the home for some county services, possibly the Health Department, Department of Social Services (DSS) and Services on Aging. However, no decisions have been made, Smith said.

The Health Department and DSS are located in the old hospital building on East Ash Street.

"The old hospital absolutely will not serve the Health Department," Smith said. "We have got a major, major problem. As the economy goes down, more people are coming to us. How are we going to serve them? The people who are showing up on our doorsteps, they are not what people would say are poverty-stricken. You have poor folks who walk in off the street, but these are working people who have no insurance. Our numbers are growing up, and we do not have any place to serve them. We just don't have the room, and I think this makes much more sense than going and build new."

Smith said one of the buildings in the hospital complex being utilized by the county is 90 years old

"I have got a lot of issues there particularly with the Health Department, and I am not saying this will be Health or DSS, but we have had the opportunity with this particular building that is over 86,000 square feet with a paved parking lot," he said. "Despite how the building may look in front, the building is in very good shape."

Smith said the county has spent the last six to eight months working on obtaining the site.

"That is a great building," he said. "One great thing is that it already is paved and built. I don't have to change the footprint, so nitrogen runoff is not an issue. Nitrogen runoff is a costly issue. It costs you hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The property has numerous advantages, Smith said, including 400 parking spaces. The lot will have to be paved or resurfaced, he said.

Another is its location, he said. The site has access off Stronach Avenue as well as two entrance options off North William Street. Along with the access, the site is on a major GATEWAY bus route. Traffic volume on the road is reasonable as well, Smith added.

The county has had fiber cable installed down John Street and then Stronach Avenue all the way to the city garage and the county's new animal control shelter.

Smith said other improvements to the structure would include a new facade and renovation inside to add office spaces.

He also is asking engineers to determine if a second story could be built.

Smith said the county also has to do something about space for Services on Aging.

"Our senior center is bursting at the seams," he said. "I am also bursting at the seams for probation and parole."

Smith said Services on Aging could be located at one end of the Masons property, while the other end could house Human Services, possibly including probations and parole.

Moving probations and parole out of the Sullivan Building (the old tax building) would allow the county to shift some people out of the courthouse, allowing more room for the district attorney, courts and judges, he said.

Buying existing facilities and renovating is "much, much cheaper" than building new, Smith said. New buildings for the Health Department, DSS and Services on Aging could top $45 million, he said.

"We cannot afford that," Smith said. "This is the way to get some things done. I am going back to what board has said, 'we are going to build what we need, not what we want.'"

No timetable has been established for the project. It is on the county's capital improvement plan to be presented to commissioners again in January.

"What I'd like to see is that you do things in phases, you kind of take steps," Smith said. "We are trying to do the right thing and find existing facilities. I think that is more palatable to the general populace."

Smith said he is unsure how much renovation would cost. He said the county would start developing a plan in January.

However, he said he is still confident the cost is nearly 50 percent cheaper than building new.

Smith said part of the reasoning for building the county's fund balance has been to be able to do projects like the Masons building renovation.

Smith called the $850,000 cost a "fair price."

"An economic downtown can be the time to purchase," he said. "It is not a bad time to invest. You just have to figure out what to invest in. We have the money and have being planning to do it, and I do not think it will put the county in financial harm's way."

Securing the property does not mean the county will start renovations in 2009 -- some work might be done, such as new roof, and the rest in phases over several years, he said.