03/28/14 — County weighs new ag center plans

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County weighs new ag center plans

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 28, 2014 1:46 PM

A request for qualifications for Wayne County's proposed $12 million regional agriculture center was sent out Wednesday to 14 different architectural firms. The firms have until April 16 at 3 p.m to reply.

The contract could be awarded as soon as May.

The action followed by one day Wayne County commissioners' decision to proceed with the RFQ and a survey of the property being considered for the center -- the former state-owned dairy on the Old Smithfield Road near Cherry Hospital.

Commissioners also agreed to officially ask the state to convey the property to the county -- something that should not pose a problem, state Rep. Jimmy Dixon said.

Dixon and state Sen. Don Davis of Snow Hill told the county's Agriculture Center Advisory Committee on Thursday that they are committed to the project and would promote it across their respective legislative districts as well as in the General Assembly.

"On the land, I can absolutely assure you that all of the folks in the Department of Agriculture are full speed ahead," Dixon said. "I can't foresee any hitches in the successful transfer of this land, and that comes from the highest folks in the Department of Agriculture."

When it is conveyed, it will include language that the property would revert to the state should the agriculture center project fall through, he said.

"Other than that, I think it is going to be a very smoothly flowing situation," he said.

However, both lawmakers said they do not believe there will be enough time during the legislative short session that starts in May to secure any funding for the project. That is more likely in the 2015 long session, they said.

Commissioner Joe Daughtery asked Davis if he recalled how much local legislators had initially sought in state funding for the project in 2008. Davis said he did not recall, but agreed with committee members who said they thought it was $6 million.

Wayne County Purchasing Manager Noelle Woods passed out copies of the RFQ. Along with being sent to the firms, it will be advertised in newspapers and on the county website, she said.

State law requires that the architect be hired based on qualifications and not the price, which will be negotiated, Interim County Manager George Wood said.

The RFQ will be broken down into two phases, he added.

The first will be basic schematic drawings that show where the building will sit on the property, the interior layout and exterior appearance, he said. That is needed before the county can apply for federal, and possibly even state funding, he said.

The second phase would not proceed until the county knows what the funding sources will be, he said. That part would include the detailed plans, but with the flexibility of allowing the county to use the traditional design, bid, build approach or design/build, he said.

The committee hopes to secure enough public funding to cover 50 to 60 percent of the cost. The remainder would come from private sources.

Greg Shackelford, chairman of the group's finance subcommittee, suggested that the plans needed to be in hand before approaching private donors.

A master list of possible donors has been created of the people and businesses that will benefit from the center, he said.

In response to questions by Commissioner Steve Keen, Wood said it would take about four months to get the schematics once an architect has been hired. That means it could be as late as October before the financial subcommittee would have the information needed to appeal to private donors.

Shackelford said he did not want to wait that long.

Dixon agreed.

Large private donors like to be involved in the "genesis" of the project, and the "clock is ticking" on talking with those potential donors, he said.

"The sooner, if you want private money in any significance, the sooner that you can get together a representative group of these folks, and let them have initial thoughts and inputs into this, the better off you are going to be," he said. "I think as soon as possible a meeting needs to be arranged."

Dixon said he has good relationships with many of the companies and individuals that could be potential donors and offered his help in facilitating who to talk to and get to the table.

The group also discussed the center's mission as well as possible names for it. In the RFQ, it is referred to as the Wayne County Regional Agriculture Research Center.

Concerns were expressed that using Wayne County in the name could hinder people in other counties from contributing. However, Dixon noted that the center is in Wayne County and is a Wayne County project.

No name was decided on, but suggestions included the Wayne Regional Agriculture Research Center.

Dixon said that if he and Davis want to be able to convince their colleagues in the region to support the project they need assurance it would be available to folks other than just Wayne County residents.

As for research, Dixon said state Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler, who has endorsed the project, is interested in a statewide enhancement of projects like the one in Wayne County that will benefit agriculture everywhere.