City, county should follow through on TDA building deal


Sunday, March 24, 2019

There’s nothing wrong with Pasquotank County commissioners’ decision last week to slow down the county’s agreement to purchase, along with the city of Elizabeth City, The Daily Advance’s building for $1.15 million and to expend another $350,000 renovating the structure for a new senior center.

Commissioners said they wanted more time to review the deal, which requires the county to commit to paying half the purchase and renovation costs — about $750,000 — and then half of the senior center’s operating costs. They also want to tour the building and explore some of the concerns critics of the purchase have raised, particularly one about the location of parking.

Commissioners also have expressed concern about terms of the interlocal agreement they’re being asked to sign with the city. The pact requires the county to repay its share of the debt for the building’s purchase and renovation costs before it officially becomes a half-owner in the structure.

These are all valid reasons for slowing down the two governments’ purchase of The Daily Advance building. They are not, however, reasons to back away from the agreement commissioners, along with members of City Council, voted unanimously for earlier this month when they decided to pursue the building’s purchase. Buying The Daily Advance building for the price the two governments are getting it for — $1.15 million — is a good deal for taxpayers. We also think their intended use for the building — as a new senior center — is smart and forward-thinking.

The building in question, of course, is one built in 2004 by one of our former owners, Cox North Carolina, and its current owner is Cooke Communications, our former owner. The key word in that last sentence is “former.” The Daily Advance, which is now owned by Adams Publishing Group, has no stake in the building’s sale. Our current owners won’t derive any revenue from the city and county buying it, and the newspaper already has plans to move to another building when our current lease with Cooke is up in August.  

Some of the public criticism about the city and county’s agreement to purchase the building has centered on the project’s cost. Some have suggested other options they believe are less costly — using the former Elizabeth City Middle School, for example, or using all of the Knobbs Creek Recreation Center — for the new senior center. Others have suggested the city and county aren’t spending enough for a new senior center — they would like a newer and much larger facility than the 15-year-old, 16,000-square-foot Daily Advance building. 

While using the former ECMS has been pitched for any number of uses over the years, we agree with officials that any renovation of the facility for a senior center would be costly — much more costly than buying and renovating the Daily Advance building. Buying and renovating the Advance building is also half the cost of building a brand new facility, an expense County Manager Sparty Hammett puts at between $3 million and $4 million. 

Concerns about the availability and location of parking if the Advance becomes the new senior center also seem overstated. Yes, some of the parking seniors might use, in addition to the 30 spaces on The Daily Advance lot, would be across busy Water Street. However, the city-owned parking lot on Church Street offers 147 parking spaces — 16 more than are now available at Knobbs Creek. Crossing Church Street to the Advance building would not be dangerous for seniors, even for those with limited mobility.

There also have been valid concerns about taking a prime piece of downtown real estate off the tax books. If the city and county buy the Advance building, the city stands to lose $20,000 in property taxes. That’s a legitimate concern. But so is having a large empty building sitting unused on the city’s waterfront. Sure, some developer might come along and buy the building and convert it for some commercial purpose that adds to the tax base. But then, they might not. The building has been for sale since August. Certainly any developer who thought they could get a return on their investment has looked at the building by now. The fact no one was willing to spend $1.15 million for a building that cost $5 million to build may speak volumes, unfortunately, about the reality of the local commercial building market.

At least some of these criticisms might not be arising now if both governments had been more forthcoming about what property they were considering for the senior center. Deciding to hold the location secret until public officials’ vote to pursue the purchase on March 4 likely was borne of the governments’ desire to move forward with the deal as quickly as possible before such criticisms arose. The risk of that, of course, is exactly what’s happened in the aftermath, and is an argument for why complete transparency is always the best approach.

That said, we think having a facility for seniors overlooking the waterfront fits with the economic development strategy of attracting more retirees with disposable income to Elizabeth City. We also believe having a senior center on Water Street will attract more people to the downtown, potentially putting more customers in downtown businesses throughout the day.

Will there be some adjustments for seniors, having to move to a new facility? Of course. Change is never easy, particularly when you’ve been someplace a long time. We do think, however, that seniors will be happy using this building. We certainly have been.