Towns fear loss of government offices will sap downtown vitality

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Envision a small town Main Street, and a town hall or courthouse square probably comes to mind. But in the Charlotte region, that image may need updating.

Several local governments around the N.C. Piedmont are considering moving offices out of older downtown buildings to outlying areas with underused retail and office space. Those proposals worry some downtown development officials and business owners, who fear a drop in foot traffic and its effect on downtown vitality. They’ve been vocal in opposing the moves.

Concern over downtown vitality is nothing new. Once the center of civic and business life in towns, many downtowns across the country were left mostly abandoned after businesses fled for suburban malls in the 1960s and 1970s. Efforts such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Streets program sprang up to protect downtowns. Now, with those suburban buildings and malls aging, cities and counties are scrambling to figure out how to reuse them. At the same time, some downtown government offices, especially in growing areas, need more space and parking to accommodate visitors and employees.  

Lincoln County, for example, is considering moving several county offices from downtown Lincolnton into an old hospital building a few miles away. In Waxhaw, after discovering mold in the town hall, some leaders in that Union County town want to buy space in a medical office building and move planning and administrative staff there. Rowan County’s plans to move offices from downtown Salisbury to the near-vacant, county-owned Salisbury Mall is caught up in court, part of long-standing disagreement between county and city politicians.

Nor has Charlotte kept all its local government offices in center city. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is moving some administrative offices from a temporary location in the government center to a suburban office park off Tyvola Road.  And Mecklenburg County offices are scattered, with the Department of Social Services on Billingsley Drive, about 4 miles from uptown, and Park and Recreation administrative offices on Brookshire Boulevard about 5 miles from uptown. The county in 2003 bought the old Freedom Mall, which now houses some social services and other county offices.

It’s understandable that governments want more space, says Elizabeth Parham, director of North Carolina’s Main Streets program. The Main Streets program supports downtown development efforts in municipalities with populations less than 50,000.

It's important for healthy downtowns to have government offices centered downtown, she said, and the loss of those offices can hurt. But it's easy to understand why the government offices might seek to move.

“It’s just the nature of the beast that government offices have gotten bigger,” Parham said. “They’re looking for more space and more parking. Downtowns in a lot of towns just don’t have the appropriate square footage. Some do.”

“(Government offices) are certainly important,” Parham said. “They’re generally the largest employers. And a lot of our downtown organizations have lobbied hard to keep offices in the downtown.”

Economic impact studies focusing on government buildings are hard to come by, especially ones covering North Carolina. A 2005 study of Wisconsin county seats found that towns with government offices downtown had 8.4 percent more businesses, 7.4 percent more retail, and 25 percent more professional and technical businesses downtown. In addition, 15.4 percent fewer restaurants and 53 percent fewer traveler accommodations (hotels and bed-and-breakfasts) were available in downtowns without government office buildings.

Losing the lunch crowd

In Lincolnton, several downtown business owners signed petitions and spoke against Lincoln County’s long-range plan to move several downtown offices to a vacant hospital a few miles from downtown. The project would move 77 employees from a variety of departments over four years.

Brooke Sherrill, board chair of the Lincolnton Downtown Development Association, said the loss of foot traffic would hurt downtown businesses, especially restaurants that rely on lunch crowds of office workers or people doing business at government office buildings.

“We don’t want them to leave,” Sherrill said, “But if we can’t change their minds we are already planning for how we’ll cope.”

The county-owned hospital became vacant when Carolinas Medical Center moved into a larger facility. Faced with overcrowded courts downtown and six-figure annual utility bills at the vacant hospital, Lincoln County Manager Tracy Jackson said moving some offices from downtown was the county’s best option.  The county approved the proposal with the fiscal year 2015 budget.  

 “Long range, it allows us to provide better facilities for our staff or the public,” Lincoln County Manager Jackson said. “This gives us the opportunity to expand without having to build. If the hospital wasn’t in the equation, there would have been a lot more options. We have to do something with that facility.”

In Salisbury, recent efforts by Rowan County to move offices to an old shopping mall have proved controversial. The plans also reverse tradition in a town that cares about its downtown development.

About 10 years ago, the city and its economic development corporation, Downtown Salisbury Inc., convinced the Salisbury Police Department to stay downtown by helping the department expand while staying on Liberty Street, two blocks from the Rowan County Jail. The city and Downtown Salisbury also lobbied to bring the Rowan-Salisbury School system’s central office from East Spencer to downtown Salisbury. The Board of Education approved the land swap that would make the move possible in August. 

Downtown: Where workers are happier?

Randy Hemann, former director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. and now town manager in Oxford, N.C., said the benefits of government offices downtown aren’t simply economic. Downtowns, Hemann said, are also good for employee morale.   

“The pitch (to the school board) was – here’s a place where your employees will be happier,” Hemann said. All the major roads come to a point in the center of the county seat. For commuters, it’s in the very center of everything. There are a lot of opportunities instead of getting in a car and driving 10 minutes for lunch.”

In December 2013, Rowan County purchased the mostly vacant, 320,000-square-foot Salisbury Mall for $3.4 million. Plans are to move the Board of Elections, Veterans Services Center and other county offices into the mall. The Local Government Commission staff, a state agency which oversees local government borrowing, recommended against the county’s financing in August but has delayed official action.

State Main Streets Director Parham said Veteran’s Services and other social services offices that serve large volumes of residents often seek suburban locations.

“Any time you can convert a neighborhood to an active use, it’s probably good for its property,” Parham said. “I think the response is that there’s a sea of parking available, there’s accessibility.”

Parham said county governments are often less invested in downtown development than town or city governments. In Waxhaw, however, it’s the town government that wants to move about 20 employees from downtown to space in a medical office building about a mile and a half away. The idea arose after town officials discovered mold in the town hall. Later, space in a medical office building that shares a parking lot with the town became available.

“There are some folks who want to keep the offices in the downtown,” Interim Town Manager Gregory Mahar said. “We’re working through the due diligence.”

On balance, Parham said, the effect of government offices leaving downtowns depends on the number of jobs that go with them.

“Your courthouses and your libraries – those are all today’s anchors in downtowns,” Parham said. “It’s really important for healthy strong downtowns to have government offices centered in the downtown.”