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Commissioners wrestle with Haywood Schools’ office dilemma

Haywood County Schools hopes to vacate the Historic Haywood Hospital by 2021 regardless of whether it’s redeveloped or not. File photo Haywood County Schools hopes to vacate the Historic Haywood Hospital by 2021 regardless of whether it’s redeveloped or not. File photo

After a minor delay due to the concerns of a newly-elected commissioner, Haywood County has again decided to move forward with the redevelopment of the Historic Haywood Hospital by granting Landmark Services a purchase option on the property, but the looming issue of what to do with its current occupants remains unresolved. 

“At the last meeting we talked about this option and one of the things we came away with was trying to make it cleaner, and simpler, and address the concerns that Mr. Pless had about the lease for the Haywood County school system,” said David Francis, a program administrator for the county. “[County Attorney] Mr. Queen and I sat down and I think he did an outstanding job of making it a lot easier to read.”

North Carolina Housing Finance Authority regulations require that a developer have control of the development site before applying for tax credits. Those credits are crucial to the financial feasibility of the site, and the purchase option on the 3-acre hospital property in the amount of $225,000 gives Landmark that control. 

This is the third time the county has granted Landmark such an agreement, which gives Landmark the right to buy the property during the option period, which ends Sept. 19. Landmark also has the opportunity to pay $7,000 for one 90-day extension to the closing deadline, and then pay another $7,000 for another extension, which could push the closing well into 2020. 

Presumably, Landmark would only purchase the parcel if the tax credits are awarded. Typically, recipients of the credits are notified in mid-August. 

On Dec. 17, Francis said that if Landmark’s application was successful, the hospital’s redevelopment would not impact the school district’s lease, because Landmark said it would honor the school district’s lease. 

During that same meeting, Commissioner Pless insisted that the option include a more solid assurance that the school district, which leases the building for use as its central administration office, wouldn’t be forced out unexpectedly before the lease runs out in 2020, and a provision in the contract explicitly states that “the buyer will honor that lease through its expiration date of Dec. 31, 2020.” 

Pless got what he wanted, but correctly pointed out that the school district’s future office site — with or without Landmark’s purchase — was still just a can being kicked down the road. 

“If I read this correctly, we still have to figure out what to do with them,” he said. “We’re still under the same timetable of two years.”

School district officials have indicated that they would prefer not to sign another lease on the property — which isn’t exactly in the best of shape — once theirs runs out at the end of 2020. 

“At that point in time, we have no obligation to provide them a place for administrative offices — no legal obligation,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “However, they don’t have the money to renovate or build a facility for an administrative office. Regardless of whether we have the legal liability, we’re going to have some obligation to work with them at that point in time, or at some point in time, to assist them with administrative offices, wherever that may be.”

Haywood is the only county in the state that has such an arrangement with its schools. 

“We’re already kind of out front of most counties in what we do, so assisting them will be above and beyond what most counties do,” said Chairman Kevin Ensley. 

Because the school board does not have the authority to levy taxes, “we do want to take care of our school system and assist them in finding a building, like Kirk was saying,” continued Ensley. “I think we’ve kind of looked, but not really. We need to get serious about finding them a space.”

The application process for the credits includes a preliminary submission by Jan. 18, 2019, and a final application due in May. 

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