Politics & Government

State leaders approve DMV’s move from Raleigh to Rocky Mount

The state DMV’s move to Rocky Mount took a big step forward Tuesday morning when the Council of State approved a 15-year lease on a new headquarters complex there.

The council, made up of Gov. Roy Cooper and nine other statewide elected officials, had put off a decision on the lease for a month so members could get answers to questions about the move’s impact on the agency and its employees. In the end, the council approved the lease without discussion or dissent.

If the General Assembly provides money for the lease, the Division of Motor Vehicles will begin moving from its long-time home on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to Rocky Mount in the summer of 2020.

It’s not clear how many of the more than 400 headquarters employees will make the move and how many will choose to leave the agency instead. The DMV asked employees about it last week and of 255 who answered, only 48 said they would stay with the agency after the move.

The head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina said the decision to move forward with the lease showed “disrespect and disregard” for the concerns of workers by both the Council of State and the state Department of Transportation.

“They have turned the lives of some 400 employees completely upside down,” Broome said in an interview after the vote. “It is profoundly disappointing.”

The DMV sought proposals for leased office space in Wake and surrounding counties. Of the dozen offers, the former headquarters of the Hardee’s restaurant chain in Rocky Mount was the only one outside of Wake County or Research Triangle Park and had the lowest annual rent.

David Farris, president and CEO of the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce, said DMV would be a big help to a struggling part of North Carolina.

“It’s a great opportunity for our state government to help lift up the eastern part of the state,” Farris said. “And in the process the taxpayers are the real winners.”

The DMV must vacate its offices on New Bern Avenue by the fall of 2020. The buildings there, which date back to the 1950s, have asbestos and fire safety problems that the state Department of Insurance and the State Construction Office agreed were too expensive to fix. Last summer, the General Assembly gave the DMV until Oct. 1, 2020, to leave for offices it would lease from a private landlord.

The DMV plans to lease about 139,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in Rocky Mount for an average of $2,053,635 a year over the first 15 years of the lease. There are two options to renew the lease for an additional 10 years at higher rates.

The DMV mapped the homes of its headquarters employees and determined that the average commute to Rocky Mount would take an hour each way. The distance, and the toll it would take on their family and personal lives, is one of the biggest complaints from DMV employees as they consider their future.

DMV officials held a series of meetings with employees last week to gauge their feelings about the move and what steps the state might take to make it better. The agency is hoping to minimize the loss of staff; of the 255 who responded last week, 145 said they would leave and another 62 said they were uncertain.

“We will continue to partner with our employees and the state human resources office over the next year to make the transition as smooth as possible for them,” DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup said in a statement Tuesday.

All 16 Wake County state representatives and senators signed a letter opposing the move, both because of its impact on employees and because of the loss of a big employer in Southeast Raleigh. Sen. Dan Blue, whose district includes the current headquarters, issued a statement Tuesday calling the move a “bad deal for state operations.”

“Without weighing the human cost of real estate deals, and without taking into account existing inventory of vacant state-owned buildings, we’re not running state government as it should be run,” Blue said. “Taxpayers and DMV employees deserve better than this.”

Supporters of the move note that the DMV buildings on New Bern Avenue shouldn’t be a drag on Raleigh in the long run. Though the state has not made any decisions about what to do with the complex, they note that nearly six acres on a busy street just east of downtown Raleigh will eventually be redeveloped.

“It’s going to free up some property downtown for economic development, which will add to the coffers of Wake and Raleigh,” Farris said.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.