When economy is down, dreamers' hopes (and projects) rise

Low interest rates, land and construction prices aid public assets 

mquillin@newsobserver.comJanuary 16, 2013 

  • In the works Even in a down economy, local governments have been taking advantage of lower land and construction costs to add features designed to boost residents’ quality of life. Whether it’s better access to downtown courtrooms or a revived theater in Cary, here are some examples of the dream boom: • A $200 million expansion at Wake Tech. • A $6 million renovation of a downtown Cary theater. • New Raleigh senior centers at Whitaker Mill and North Raleigh. • Wake’s new downtown Justice Center. • The beginnings of a large new city park on the Dorothea Dix property.

Squinting in the afternoon sun, Heather Gutierrez stared across the surface of Bass Lake at an otter noodling around.

In constant motion, the playful little river weasel has something in common with the town where he and park visitor Gutierrez live: He’s not content just to tread water.

Last month, the Town of Holly Springs paid $1 million to buy 117 acres of land adjacent to Bass Lake Park, giving the town’s 27,000 residents even more recreational space. And last week, town leaders met with the Wake County Board of Commissioners to ask for approval of a $2 million deal to buy about 42 acres of South Wake Landfill property, on which Holly Springs plans to build athletic facilities.

Despite several years of recession and fears of more to come, the little town of Holly Springs continues to dream big. It’s one of many local governments that have pressed forward with public projects in recent years, from Wake County’s new courtroom tower to Cary’s historic theater renovation.

Some critics have said a down economy is no time to build or expand parks, greenways, schools, roads, museums, libraries or other public facilities sometimes viewed as luxuries. That meant heated controversy accompanied a decision to use state land at Dorothea Dix for a park instead of private development.

Others argue that because of the economy, land, design and construction costs are relatively low, so it’s the perfect opportunity to add the kind of amenities that bring in new businesses and people.

“You cannot afford to get too far behind, or become complacent or paralyzed,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, who had introduced the landfill property sale as the most exciting item on the board’s agenda the day it came to a vote. It was approved unanimously.

“You’ve got to continue to work on solutions,” Bryan said. “We’re not just building for today. We’re building for the future.”

Accomplishing such visionary projects when money is tight often requires teaming with private landowners, corporations, land conservancies and other government entities.

Holly Springs bought the land adjacent to Bass Lake from the family of Jeffrey Sugg, who knew the late developer wanted the old farm to remain in its mostly natural state, and sold it for half what it might have brought on the open market. Before his death, Sugg worked with the Triangle Land Conservancy to draw up restrictive covenants for the property.

The landfill property the town is buying is part of a tract the county originally had planned to use to extract dirt for burying trash. Wake County is selling the land for the price it paid in the 1990s, plus the cost of the 331,000 cubic yards of dirt it will need to buy elsewhere.

Holly Springs Town Manager Carl Dean said in a town where the average age is 32, parks are popular projects.

“It’s a very active community, and a lot of the people came from somewhere else,” he said. “They’ve seen nice things there, and they want them here.”

Holly Springs’ tax base

It helps that in 2009, well into the recession, Holly Springs landed a $600 million Novartis flu-vaccine manufacturing plant, which gave a boost to its otherwise mostly residential tax base. It also helps, Dean said, that town residents are supportive; in 2011, voters approved the sale of $20 million in parks and recreation bonds. Though the town hasn’t sold all $20 million worth, the bonds it has sold will be repaid at a low interest rate, also thanks to the recession, which pushed all interest rates down.

The tumble of the financial markets in late 2008 brought a temporary halt to one of Wake County’s biggest public projects, the Justice Center at Martin and Salisbury streets. Workers had cleared the site and were ready to dig a hole for the underground parking garage when county commissioners voted to stop work while they studied the bond market and determined whether it made sense to borrow the money for the justice center and for a planned new jail.

The county decided to borrow $300 million in bond anticipation notes at a low interest rate to hold it over until the bond markets stabilized. Commissioners later chose to go ahead with the jail first, and then the justice center.

“You don’t want to wish a recession on a community just so you can build a capital project,” Wake County Manager David Cooke said, but when it opens later this year, the Justice Center will have been completed at about $28 million under budget.

Phil Stout, director of facilities, design and construction for Wake County and project manager for the Justice Center, said the need for public services grows as the population continues to grow, even if that’s at a slower pace than some areas of North Carolina saw in the 1990s.

“In Wake County, you can tell the community takes pride in their facilities,” Stout said. “We think a judicial facility or a library or other public space is representative of what the community wants.”

Last year, Wake County voters also approved $200 million in bonds to expand Wake Technical Community College. This year, commissioners are expected to talk about resuming the expansion of the county’s library system and to begin discussions about a public school bond issue.

Cary’s downtown

In December, the town of Cary launched the $6 million renovation of its first movie theater in hopes the project will spur additional downtown revitalization work. On Jan. 9, the town began offering up to $140 million in revenue bonds to generate funds for water and wastewater capital projects, including a new treatment plant at its Western Wake Regional Wastewater Management Facilities.

The City of Raleigh, like Holly Springs, has been expanding its recreational options over the past few years, including construction of its sections of the 27.5-mile Neuse River Trail. It completed one section in November 2011 and another in December 2012. Construction continues on four of the remaining six sections, with help from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

The fund offers grants of up to $500,000 each for land acquisition, new facilities and renovation of existing ones, said John Poole, who manages the grant program. On each project, local governments must at least match the state’s contribution. Last year, the fund had about $7 million to work with.

“The past three years have been a real good time for local governments – if they have the resources – to buy quality land at very reasonable costs,” Poole said.

Last year, the city opened the new Five Points and Anne Gordon centers for active adults, where seniors have access to classes, exercise equipment and recreational programs. Together, the facilities cost $7.7 million to build, paid from an $88.6 million city parks bond issue passed in 2007.

In December, Raleigh also signed a 75-year lease in which the city will pay $500,000 a year to use the former Dorothea Dix mental hospital property as a park. Critics of the agreement said the state – and those who need state-provided mental health services – got short-changed in the deal.

Stephen Bentley, Raleigh’s capital improvement program manager, said that while some criticize spending public money when people in the community can’t find jobs, he considers it a good investment. Its amenities are among the reasons the region often is mentioned in best-places-to-live listings, Bentley said, and they’re why companies want to locate here.

“When things are tight, there may even be more justification for it,” Bentley said. “When the economy is challenging, you may not be able to afford to spend $9 on a movie ticket or go out to a restaurant, but you can take your family to these public facilities for no cost.

“People need a respite. They need to be able to take a pause from that stress, and these public spaces are invaluable for that.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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