What to do with the Hannah building?
By Scott Nicholson
The county commissioners made a decision that set one capital project in motion, but didn’t make a decision on what to do with the sought-after Hannah Building.
The competition for the Hannah Building grew when Two Rivers Community School offered to lease or purchase the building. The charter school withdrew its request shortly before Tuesday night’s regular meeting and the item was removed from the agenda.
Several other organizations or agencies have expressed interest in the building, and three county uses for the building had been proposed, but Two Rivers was the first to offer a significant amount for a lease. The charter school was officially approved earlier this year and plans to open in August, but has not yet finalized a space.
The school’s board of directors sent a letter to the county offering to lease the Hannah Building for $1,000 a month, with an option to purchase the building for $150,000 after two years. The directors had also asked the county to consider a second option, leasing a former school bus garage for two years at $750 month. That building is one of two located near the NC. 105 Bypass and will be occupied by Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute until early June, when new modular classrooms on the Watauga campus are finished.
Tuesday the commissioners gave approval to seek a $400,000 grant to renovate and possibly expand a building at that site to serve as a small business incubator. Under the terms of the community development block grant (CBDG), the county would have to create one job for every $10,000 in grant money received or would be faced with repaying all or part of the grant.
Planning director Joe Furman said the money could only be used for “hard costs,” funding construction or renovation for projects designed to spur business growth and job creation. “An incubator is something the Economic Development Commission is committed to pursuing,” Furman said.
He had also proposed the Hannah Building as a possible site, and said the county could make a $250,000 grant request for renovations to that building. A new roof would cost about $100,000, and there were also limits on the amount of improvements that could be done because the building lies in a flood zone. Furman said one side of the building could be used for office space while the rest could be for other uses.
Furman said the incubator could be built from scratch, but said a small building at the former bus garage which once housed a previous version of the health department was suitable for business use. The commissioners voted to pursue developing that building, which is on a three-and-a-half-acre tract of land. County manager Rocky Nelson called it a “valuable property” because of its location at the intersection of the N.C. 105 Bypass and U.S. 421/321. The former bus garage will likely be torn down at some point, and Nelson said town of Boone water lines were within a half mile of the site.
Furman said the jobs from the business incubator would have to be created within three years of the county’s receiving the grant. He said an on-site manager wouldn’t be needed, nor other typical support services, saying that cheap space and mentoring were most needed.
The commissioners heard from several of the agencies that are seeking use of the Hannah Building. The building is located on Health Center Drive in the Bamboo area in Boone and is the site of the former county health department. It has stood empty since the new health department opened at the Human Services center near King Street in Boone. Nelson said the building had been for sale for two years but had generated no serious offers.
Before withdrawing their request, the charter school’s board of directors wrote, “The Two Rivers Community School recently received approval and grant money from the State Department of Instruction to open a charter school in Watauga County. There are many families and educators eager to be involved with this school and we believe that offering educational choices is beneficial to Watauga County in many ways.”
Others who have sought the use of the building include the Hospitality House, a local homeless shelter, which is seeking a 30-year lease at $1 per year and has asked for time to do an architectural study on possible renovations. The shelter plans to sell its three properties in Boone to cover the cost of renovations if their request is approved. The Hunger
Coalition has also requested use of the space for its food donation and pharmacy programs, and has discussed occupying it jointly with the Hospitality House.
WAMY Community Action has expressed interest in using the space for a community resource center, and the Three Forks Baptist Association has sought to open a family service center there. Other proposed public uses
include a fire fighters’ training facility and a county storage facility.
Three Forks Baptist Association’s proposal was to use the building to provide tutoring, indoor recreation, after-school counseling, life skills and nutrition education, and other services, noting the association already served several residents in the nearby Bradford mobile home park and other community members who are “at risk from the pressures of limited income and deficits in community integration.” Three Forks originally offered a $20,000 down payment on the purchase of the building, saying a purchase would remove government administrative burdens and county risks in retaining the property.
“We would expect a sizeable reduction from the current value of $550,000 due to the condition of the building and its fragile, protected environment,” the association’s proposal sad. Like the Hospitality
House, the association asked for several months to conduct a feasibility study to determine the cost of renovations.
WAMY’s proposal also included intention to buy the building but said “having a piece of property donated or leased would make this project feasible.” WAMY hopes to combine several agencies into a “campus” site
so each can reduce overhead costs by leasing space in the non-profit center. WAMY would house its administrative offices there, with Joblink, the OASIS shelter for victims of domestic violence, Hunger Coalition and Children’s Council listed as probable tenants, with a couple of other organizations having expressed interest.
OASIS director Jennifer Herman said the different agencies would reduce their overhead by combining under one roof, an idea she said has been floating around for several years. She said the agencies bring grant money into the county and provide jobs in addition to serving county residents and said the agencies had a desire to work together.
Barry Neely, representing the Three Forks Baptist Association, said the association’s services fit with those offered by some of the other agencies interested in a common resource center and opened the possibility that a number of small agencies could share the building.
Hospitality House director Jim Thompson said the homeless shelter would need up to 9,000 square feet to provide needed services and said the shelter would be willing to share the building.
Commissioner David Blust said, “We’d love to put everything in there,” but acknowledged that not all the requests could be met. Commissioner Keith Honeycutt said “some of the agencies won’t fit together.” The commissioners took no action but said they’d continue to discuss it and possibly invite the interested parties back for further discussion.
Under the county’s plan to convert the 16,000-square-foot building into a warehouse storage facility, the county would spend about $200,000 over
two years on renovations. The roof would have to be replaced no matter who ends up using the facility.
The projected cost for turning the building into a small business incubator was $300,000 over six years. The plan to create an emergency services training facility might require the demolition of the building
and construction of a building, classroom, and four-story training tower. The project would require three acres of relatively flat land. The projected cost is nearly $430,000.
Nelson said no money had been budgeted for maintenance of the building and no funds had been earmarked for ongoing expenses. He recommended the building become the property of whichever group ends up operating the center, but said any money collected in rent should be divided among he whole non-profit community.
*Scott Nicholson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org