08/08/10 — County starts planning for departments' new offices

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County starts planning for departments' new offices

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 8, 2010 1:50 AM

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The old Masons Building on William Street is the likely new location for the county's Services on Aging and Health Department offices.

Wayne County is negotiating with a Greenville architectural firm to begin plans to convert an old department store building into the new home for Services on Aging and Health Department.

The firm, MHAworks, was one of nine that responded to the county's request for qualifications that had been sent out to 30 companies. Company officials spoke to commissioners at their Tuesday morning session and briefed them on projects the company has been involved with, including East Carolina University and UNC Hospitals.

County Manager Lee Smith said what was being asked of commissioners was for them to allow county staff to enter into the negotiations and to bring back a contract for preliminary design and project services in phases.

"I plan to be in on those talks," Commission Chairman Jack Best said.

Commissioners would have to approve any contract.

"Right now we are looking at a favorable bond market," Smith said. "We are looking at favorable interest rates. I think we are in a really good position even though we are in the economic downturn."

Smith said Davenport officials, the county's financial advisers, will be in the county to look at the project.

"I think it is a good start," he said. "We have been putting money away for a project like this. It will be a mix. I think we will use some cash on the project as well as finance."

"We are talking renovation, right?" Commissioner J.D. Evans said.

Smith said that was the case.

"In any renovation project, there are a lot of unknowns," county facilities director Sue Farmer said.

Those questions will remain until the "building is torn into," she said. There could be environmental, mechanical or structural issues, she added.

Commissioner Steve Keen sought assurances that MHAworks would be able to provide virtual visualizations of how the project would look before it was ever built.

MHAworks founder and President Michael Hining said that would not be a problem.

No specific amounts were discussed, but Hining said a full service fee could be $800,000 to $850,000.

Hining said the building would need to have at least part of the roof replaced, possibly more. Also, the building does not need the large (400-space) parking lot, he said.

He said his company could come up with a design to give the building the look of a complex similar to what has been done with an old Walmart building.

County officials have talked for more than a year about relocating Services on Aging and Health Department from the old hospital building on Ash Street into the former Masons Department Store on North William Street once it is renovated.

It has been estimated that it would cost the county nearly $35 million to construct a new building for the Health Department and Services on Aging. The county paid $800,000 for the 86,000-square-foot Masons building and property.

The two departments share the old hospital building with the Department of Social Services.

The move is needed not only because of the volume of traffic there, but because of the layout of the building. For example, the Health Department is spread across three floors.

"We get a lot of lost patients in the Health Department," said Jim Roosen, department director.

Patients who get lost and arrive 15 minutes late to an appointment cost the county time and money, he said.

"We have over 2,000 patients a month and (the hospital) is not designed for people to walk in the door and be in front of a health care provider," he said.

Such a move could also allow the county to shed some of the older, less-energy-efficient hospital outbuildings now in use.

Services on Aging is located downtown in a former bank building at 100 E. John St. and shares space with the Day Reporting Center. The Day Reporting Center is "encroaching" on the Services on Aging's space, and is not a "good fit" with the senior center, county officials have said.

Also, since the site's William Street property's "footprint" would not change, the county would not have to contend with meeting nitrogen runoff requirements that could be a costly issue that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Adding to the site's attractiveness is access off Stronach Avenue as well as two entrance options off North William Street. It is on a major GATEWAY bus route and fiber cable is available enabling the county to connect the building to the county system.