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Republican state budget orders DMV headquarters to leave Raleigh

The state Division of Motor Vehicles must vacate its headquarters on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh by November 2020.
The state Division of Motor Vehicles must vacate its headquarters on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh by November 2020. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The state Division of Motor Vehicles will have to leave its headquarters on New Bern Avenue under a provision in the state budget now making its way through the General Assembly.

The budget bill released late Monday orders DMV to vacate its property on New Bern by Oct. 1, 2020, and move to leased space "outside Raleigh." It directs the state Department of Administration to begin seeking office space for DMV in "Wake County and surrounding counties" by Aug. 1.

The bill, which cleared a first vote in the Senate on Wednesday, does not say whether DMV's departure from Raleigh would be temporary or permanent or what the state would do with the property on New Bern Avenue.

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The provision in the budget essentially enforces an agreement between the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Insurance, NCDOT spokesman Steve Abbott said late Wednesday. In 2011, the state determined it would cost $12.8 million to bring the DMV's aging headquarters up to code and that even then "the buildings would still be functionally obsolete," Abbott said.

So instead, the state spent $625,000 on stairwells, lighting and exits to make it easier to get out of the buildings in an emergency. When that work was completed in 2015, the transportation and insurance departments agreed that DMV would leave the buildings by November 2020, Abbott said.

State officials have not decided whether DMV's move will be temporary or permanent, he said.

The prospect of DMV leaving its longtime headquarters in Southeast Raleigh concerns the politicians who represent the neighborhood. DMV says it employs 479 people full time on New Bern Avenue and another 50 part time.

"That's ... jobs in my community that I would like to see stay," said Rep. Yvonne Holley, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Southeast Raleigh.

Corey Branch, who represents Southeast Raleigh on the City Council, said he had spoken with DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup about the move and has expressed concerns that the agency may not return.

“We can’t afford to lose ... jobs in this part of town," Branch said.

Two four-story buildings connected by an enclosed walkway make up the DMV headquarters. The larger of the two was built in 1957; the other opened in 1977. The site covers about 5.5 acres.

The DMV has considered moving from its longtime home for years. There wasn't enough parking, and the two buildings were overcrowded and difficult to renovate because of asbestos and other constraints.

In 1997, the state hired an architect to explore the possibility of moving the DMV to state property on Blue Ridge Road in West Raleigh, prompting a protest from the City Council that wanted the agency to remain downtown. The next year, the Capital Planning Commission, which included statewide elected officials, local legislators and the mayor of Raleigh, approved moving DMV headquarters outside the Beltline to the Highway Patrol test track on Garner Road, but that plan fell through when the state decided not to move the track to Butner.

In 2000, after reviewing a dozen possible sites, the DMV proposed building a new headquarters on 61 acres off Poole Road at Interstate 40. That plan was eventually abandoned, too.

Then in 2006, in a bid to relieve overcrowding on New Bern Avenue, the DMV moved more than 80 call center jobs to a new office in an industrial park near Elizabethtown in Bladen County, 100 miles south of Raleigh.

Rep. Rosa Gill, a Democrat whose district also includes parts of Southeast Raleigh, said the budget provision sets in motion a process to ensure DMV has some place to move in by October 2020. Gill hopes the money could be found to renovate or build a new headquarters for the agency on New Bern Avenue.

“I think the community and other folks in Raleigh would want us to keep that space,” she said.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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