After years of debate, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners finally pulled the trigger on building a new county animal shelter to replace the inadequate aging structure at 4525 W. Wendover Ave. in Greensboro.

At a Thursday, Sept. 20 afternoon work session, the commissioners voted unanimously to build a new animal shelter based on a preliminary design presented at the meeting. The board allocated $14.9 million in county funds for the project.

The new shelter will be built on a 12-acre site the county purchased last year at 979 Guilford College Road for about $500,000. That site, which is just southwest of Greensboro, is less than two miles from the county’s existing shelter.

The board has had some false starts over the last two years, including an attempt to build the shelter in east Greensboro – a move that proved unpopular with some residents of the area and with the Greensboro city councilmembers who represent them. Some county commissioners also fought that move. After the vote at the Sept. 20 work session to build the new shelter, many commissioners seemed pleased to have finally reached an agreement – a unanimous one at that.

At the work session, the board heard a presentation from Guilford County Animal Services Director Jorge Ortega, who took that job at the start of 2018. Ortega presented the board with two options for a new shelter – one, “Option B,” estimated to cost $11.8 million and hold 268 animals, and another, “Option A,” which would cost county taxpayers about $14.8 million and provide space for 407 animals. About two-thirds of the spots in the new shelter will be for dogs, with the rest going to cats and other animals.

After some discussion, the commissioners approved Option A, which Ortega argued would better prepare the county for expected future growth.

At a work session earlier this year, Ortega had presented the commissioners with pricier options – including one that cost $18 million – and the board informed him that that was too much money. They asked him to come back with an option under $12.3 million. The new estimated price tag of the coming shelter – just under $15 million – splits that baby.

Now that the commissioners have given the go ahead, Guilford County will move to the design stage, which, according to county staff, will take about five months. After the design is complete, the project will be put out to construction firms for competitive bids, which will take roughly another two months. That will be followed by the construction process, estimated to take about 14 months. Ortega said that meant it should be right around two years before the doors open.

Though Ortega presented the board with the preliminary plan for the new shelter, those will be refined during the design process, and the commissioners stated they were aware that actual cost estimates can vary from predicted estimates once a project is put out for bids.

The new shelter is going to require quite a bit of site work. The land –mostly a heavily wooded area on rolling hills – is projected to cost about $1.5 million to prepare. It will also take an additional $700,000 or so to bring water and sewer from the City of High Point. The cost of the actual shelter construction is expected to be just under $11 million, and equipment and furniture for the shelter is projected to cost about $150,000. The project also includes $500,000 in contingency funding – for unforeseen expenses that often arise on major construction projects. If things go very smoothly, the county may get some or all of that contingency money back.

The new 37,500-square-foot shelter will be a huge improvement over the county’s existing shelter – though the new shelter will have a lower capacity. The current animal shelter is rated to hold over 600 animals. Ortega said that having that many animals at the shelter would mean having temporary cages line the hallways. At the current shelter, he added, when the animal population is very high, the spotty heating and air conditioning system isn’t always adequate to protect the dogs, cats and other animals from the elements.

Ortega told the board that the new facility would have much better climate control systems, would improve the mental and physical well being of the animals and would also minimize the spread of disease. He said it would be easier to clean and maintain than the current facility, and also offer more options for exercising the animals. It will also, Ortega told the board, provide more isolation areas – needed for violent animals or those with communicable diseases.

Ortega presented the $11.8 million option to the board – the option that met their request of being under $12.3 million. However, as he did, he pointed out some of the disadvantages of going with the economy version of the new shelter. In addition to likely being full or overcrowded when it opened, it would also have a reduced medical care section and less space in other areas. That would mean the shelter would cost more to operate since the county wouldn’t be able to bring in-house as many services as it should. Ortega said the less expensive version would also not be as future proof as the pricy one.

Ortega said the hope is that the new shelter will be attractive and welcoming and will send the message to citizens, “We care for animals.” He also said it will be a “destination for the community.” His PowerPoint presentation stated that “More visitors = more animal lives saved.”

The new shelter will have a room where community events and educational classes can be held. That area can also be rented out to groups to generate some additional revenue and the space can be used in disasters – such as the recent Hurricane Florence – to house overflow animals.

The shelter’s “education center” will be a place where shelter staff can hold public classes on things like the proper and humane treatment of animals. The shelter is planning on partnering with the Guilford County Schools and Guilford Technical Community College for other classes and events.

Ortega said the improved workflow at the new shelter will benefit the humans who work at the shelter just as it does the animals who stay there.

Recently the Guilford County Animal Shelter held just over 400 animals, but the county is also betting that new animal population programs will bring down the number of spaces required in the new shelter.

“The other thing we can do with Option A is start focusing on cruelty investigations,” Ortega told the board. “There’s a lot of cases out there where we have just not been very responsive due to the fact that I don’t have space for that animal. When I see an animal, I want to make sure I can properly care for them.”

Ortega said that having the larger shelter would give him the ability to isolate animals and would help animal control enforce the laws. He referred to a current situation on Penny Road in High Point where a dog owner continues to keep five dogs on heavy chains even though unattended tethering is illegal in Guilford County.

Animal Control has been working with the owner to resolve the situation – one which has some animal lovers in the community upset.

“There’s one case that has five dogs,” he told the board, “and we’re going out there; we’re talking with him. We’re trying to consult him; we’re trying to help. If it was up to me today, I would have taken those dogs the day before the storm hit. But I didn’t have a space to put those dogs in because they’re not friendly with other dogs. So I would have been putting them in these crates in the hallways, risking their safety and risking staff’s safety. So we would definitely start increasing our response on those animals that really need our help.”

The commissioners are still wary of the way a previous Board of Commissioners overbuilt the county’s jail eight years ago and that has played into these discussions. At the time that the new jail, which opened in 2012, was being planned, the board heard alarming predictions from law enforcement officials, judicial officials and jail experts about the county’s future needs. Many predicted that, by now, the county’s High Point jail, the old jail in downtown Greensboro, the new jail and the county’s Prison Farm would all be full. What actually happened is that the county has closed the county’s Prison Farm, closed the old jail, has considered closing the jail in High Point jail and the county has a new $92 million 1,032-bed jail in downtown Greensboro with entire floors that go unused. (With all the extra cells, the county is able to make up some of the added cost by renting cells to the federal government creating about a $1 million in additional revenue in a good year.)

The new commissioners don’t want to make the same mistake with the animal population that the old board did with the inmate population.

“My worst fear is that we overbuild,” Commissioner Jeff Phillips said, “and we have excess capacity – that we are underutilizing this facility. That would be a black eye, frankly, on this board. Do you feel like we need room for 400 animals?”

“We do,” Ortega said.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman – one of the few voices on the board who wanted to explore building a smaller jail 10 years ago – also said she didn’t want to see the same thing happen with the shelter.

“We overbuilt the jail and I still have that concern,” she said. “I know you want to build for the future but I don’t want to be stuck with empty spaces.”

Commissioner Kay Cashion said that, though the board would be “spending a lot of money today,” it would also be investing for the future since operational costs should come down with a new facility.

At the work session, Commissioner Justin Conrad made the motion to build the shelter and every commissioners voted yes.

Commissioners Phillips and Hank Henning both said they greatly appreciate the work Ortega has done in 2018 in transforming the county’s shelter operations.

The fact that the board voted on the shelter at an untelevised work session was something of a surprise – even to some commissioners in the room. Usually, a vote on a major project of that sort takes place in a televised evening meeting – such as the regular meeting the board held right after the afternoon work session.