After trying to unload the abandon 1950s-era hospital for two years with no takers, county leaders have signaled they would be willing to give it away to the school system.
“We have put it out there as an offer for them to explore,” Interim County Manager Ira Dove said. But, “It is very early in the game.”
The five-story brick building most recently served as offices for the Haywood County Department of Social Services. But DSS moved out two years ago.
School leaders aren’t exactly jumping at the idea of taking the hulking building off the county’s hands.
“There’s a lot of questions to be answered,” said Tracey Hargrove, the Haywood Schools maintenance director. “We are trying to evaluate whether or not we can use the building and what shape it’s in. I have done a quick walk-through, but I haven’t dug down into the guts of the building to examine the plumbing and electrical.”
The looming question for school leaders is whether they would be saddled with maintenance costs for a building they only sort of have a use for. If the school accepts the free building, it also accepts the maintenance, overhead, liability and general headache that goes along with a building that big and that old.
And whatever the school system spends taking care of the pseudo-useful old hospital would come out of its maintenance budget for schools.
“We only have ‘X’ number of dollars to go around. Facilities for our students are definitely top priority. All the admin offices play second fiddle to our schools,” Hargrove said.
The central office of Haywood County Schools already occupies a portion of the old hospital — namely the original, historic wing that dates to the 1920s. It’s really all the space that central office needs, Hargrove said.
Whether the school system has a practical use for rest of the building — a hulking, five-story addition built in the 1950s — still has to be determined. If nothing else, it offers virtually unlimited storage. The school system could also consolidate a handful of satellite functions currently scattered around the county, like its IT department or cafeteria food services.
From the county’s perspective, what to do with the old hospital is a piece of a much bigger puzzle.
The county actually has three empty office buildings on its hands that it no longer needs: the main part of the old hospital recently vacated by DSS, the old health department and a building that formerly housed the planning department and board of elections. All have moved into new digs elsewhere, rendering their old quarters useless to the county.
“We have three large buildings to market,” County Commissioner Mark Swanger said. “We have to sell at least two of these three. You can’t leave them there to deteriorate.”
Whichever one doesn’t sell would presumably house the school’s central offices. Since the old hospital is the least likely to sell, why not just keep the school system there and deed them the whole building, lock stock and barrel, Swanger rationalized.
“It is a domino effect,” Swanger said. “We have to house the school system somewhere. Couldn’t we just gift it to them?”
Swanger brought up the idea at a county meeting earlier this month.
“So you are saying it is better for us to give it away to them and let them maintain it than for us to maintain it?” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick replied.
On whose dime?
Technically, the county wouldn’t be absolved from the maintenance burden simply by giving it to the school system. The maintenance budget for the school system comes from the state and county. And both sources have been cut substantially in recent years.
“We’ve been cut roughly in half,” Hargrove said, comparing his maintenance budget from 2007 to 2013.
If the school system took the building, it would ultimately rely on the county to help with maintenance.
“Anyway you look at it, all the money we get for a building like that would have to come through the county, so it would still be taxpayers’ expense,” Hargrove said. “We are at the mercy of the commissioners. Our funding comes through them.”
Every passing month the county doesn’t find a taker, the more money the county is wasting on maintenance and electricity. The mechanical systems have been kept on low to keep the building in working order.
But now, the county is looking at a bigger cost: a leaky roof that must be replaced.
“We knew it was a matter of time before we had to get to this one, but we were hoping it wasn’t going to be our problem,” said Dale Burris, the county maintenance director.
The county has courted buyers down many avenues for the old hospital: affordable senior housing, trendy lofts for young people, state government offices or offices for non-profit agencies. The county even engaged consultants to do a market analysis of possible uses for the building in hopes of sparking interest. But the cost of renovating the building has been a turnoff to potential buyers.
So, with the county still the owner, taxpayers will have to foot the looming repair bill for the roof.
“You can’t sell it with a leaky roof,” Swanger said.
Once it has a new roof, the building could simply be mothballed as a last resort.
“As long as the building is dry it is not going to deteriorate,” Swanger said.
Out with the old
Nothing in life is free, except, perhaps, old government buildings in Haywood County
The old hospital isn’t the only abandoned building Haywood County leaders have talked about giving away this month.
The old Hazelwood Elementary School was officially gifted to Folkmoot USA international dance festival last week. It has been Folkmoot’s headquarters for the past decade, but the title was officially transferred after the school system and county concluded they had no other foreseeable use for it.
Meanwhile, the county is considering a proposal to convert a decommissioned state prison into a homeless shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen run by faith-based nonprofits.