Camden complex won't fill all space needs


By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, October 30, 2017

CAMDEN — Camden commissioners suggested last week that the county’s application for a $15 million school grant could affect the final design of the county’s proposed government complex.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Clayton Riggs told interim County Manager Stephanie Humphries the board doesn’t want design work on the new $5 million government complex to stop.

However, he did say the board wants to see if the county’s application for a $15 million Needs-based Public School Capital Fund grant is funded by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The county is expected to learn early next month if it’ll be awarded the grant that it hopes to use toward building a $33 million new school to replace Camden High School.

"We haven't said stop," Meiggs told Humphries. "We just made mention of the fact that in eight days we'll know if we're going to have money for the school or not, which may help her (the architect) save money and space."

Donna Phaneuf, president of Norfolk, Virginia-based VIA Design Architects, spent nearly an hour with commissioners on Thursday, presenting options for the new government complex proposed for a site across N.C. Highway 343 from the county courthouse.

The government complex will be the new home for a number of county agencies. According to Phaneuf’s current design, county administration will be housed in the complex’s western section; the Camden Center of Cooperative Extension will be in the complex’s center section; and the Camden Public Library will occupy the eastern section.

The county’s permitting and tax collection offices will also move into the new facility from their current offices, as will the register of deeds office from its office in the courthouse.

Despite giving Camden’s county government more room, the new complex still may not be large enough to accommodate the county’s needs.

Humphries advised commissioners that the amount of space the county wanted and how much it will actually get in the new complex “turned out to be two different things — as often happens with projects.”

To meet the county’s need for future space, Humphries said one possibility is using Camden High School after it is vacated. The new high school would be built on another site.

Humphries said the more modern parts of the current high school building — it was renovated in the 2000s at a cost of roughly $3 million — could be used for a relocated senior center and parks and recreation office, both of which are currently in a building behind the courthouse.

Humphries said the renovated part of the high school building could also be used to house the Camden Early College, which currently operates in modular buildings just behind the high school.

Humphries said Camden’s new high school won’t be big enough to house the early college. Accommodating the early college in the new school would have driven up its price tag even further, she said.

Commissioner Ross Munro suggested Humphries contact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and request another grant to help construct a new building for the early college on the new high school site. The foundation awarded Camden a five-year, $750,000 grant to help with startup costs for the early college’s predecessor, CamTech High School.

Commissioner Randy Kraniak said he wonders why the current high school, after the new one is built, couldn’t be used to house all county agencies and offices.

"I just don't know why there's a push for a new admin building across the street when, ultimately, the most perfect scenario is going to be the high school," Kraniak said.

Kraniak said he’s hearing from Camden residents who want to know why the county is spending $5 million on a new government complex.

"So, I've got to have some really good answers to why we would do that when that building there, the high school, could handle everything," he said. 

Meiggs noted that many Camden residents describe the current high school as "old, dilapidated and wore out” and want it torn down. He also noted that only part of the building was upgraded in the early 2000s.

"You don't have the whole high school to work with,” Meiggs told Kraniak. “You've got the new section of the high school."

Kraniak said it’s his recollection that after the renovations were completed, the contractor declared the facility had been brought up to “at new” conditions.

Meiggs asked if that’s the case why are Camden educators pushing for a new high school?

“How come that’s all I hear, that the school is about to fall down on them?” Meiggs asked.

“I have no earthly idea,” Meiggs responded.

Humphries said she and others have visited Camden High to see first hand if it could be used for relocated county agencies and offices. She said converting the school into a new government complex would require massive adjustments that would come with a steep price tag.

"You would put as much money into that building as you would into a new facility," she said. "You just can't put a tax office in a classroom.”

Riggs told Humphries that while he doesn’t totally agree with Kraniak’s arguments that there are other options besides a new government complex, he does agree the county needs to be as prudent as possible in its spending on the new facility.

"People want us to be as scrupulous as we can with their funds and do this the smart way," he said.