After over a decade of repeated dead ends, it looks like Guilford County is finally on the brink of getting a new Emergency Services (ES) maintenance facility to repair and service that department’s vehicles.
County officials aren’t saying much publicly, but, in recent closed session talks, there’s been a good deal of optimism that the county can finally begin building the long awaited facility in 2017. The commissioners have been discussing potential locations for the project and Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said this week that she expects work on the maintenance center to begin in the coming year.
County officials say that, though the facility is seriously needed, the road to building it has been full of hurdles and unpleasant surprises. In fact, the project has become something of a running joke among county leaders in recent years because the service center was “urgently” needed a decade ago but has never been built even though the number of ES staff and vehicles has grown.
The county has now found one or more suitable sites and is conducting due diligence on at least one property. The potential sites are being discussed in closed sessions held “to discuss the acquisition of real estate.”
Guilford County Emergency Services Director Jim Albright was limited on what he could say due to the fact that the county is in those negotiations, but he did say that the project finally seems to be advancing at a good clip.
“We’ve identified a couple of potential sites,” Albright said.
He said that, in the past, Guilford County had been trying to find and purchase an existing structure that met the needs and modify it; however, he added, the big shift came when those involved finally realized they would need to buy land and build the structure from scratch.
Albright said the facility needs to be centrally located and able to withstand major storms. It must be a “Category 4” structure – one that’s built to survive hurricanes and other serious events that would take out a normal building.
“The reality is that finding an existing structure that meets our needs is a problem,” Albright said. “I think there has finally been a decision that to build to that standard is significantly more efficient. That has been kind of a paradigm shift in our thinking.”
He added that trying to find a suitable existing building in the right location turned out to be virtually impossible.
Guilford County’s Emergency Services Department has been repairing its vehicles at the current facility at 1321 N. O’Henry Blvd. in Greensboro since 1982. One county official said this week that that location often looked like something one might see “in a third world country,” with workers at times servicing vehicles outside in the rain and vehicles stored haphazardly due to a lack of space.
Albright acknowledged that the current situation is far from ideal.
“The funny thing,” Albright said, “is that right now a lot of our vehicle storage is outdoors, and I consider that Category 0.”
Albright wouldn’t discuss the details of recent closed sessions held with the commissioners, but he did say, “We are working collaboratively; certainly the commissioners are well informed.”
He said that’s important since the county commissioners are the ones that give permission for staff to do due diligence on any prospective real estate purchase.
Albright said the maintenance facility is a complicated project that will take a long time to become operational even after the board approves a site.
“If we were to get the go-ahead today, I would say that it would be about two to three years,” he said.
According to Albright, ES officials want to put the facility along the I-40/I-85 corridor, near the southern Greensboro city limit. He said easy access to major highways and a need for more ES presence in that part of the county are all factors in that decision. He added that, if there were more land at the current ES headquarters on 1002 Meadowood St., that would be an ideal place to put the new facility.
Guilford County is also in the planning process for a new Guilford County animal shelter, which is expected to free up the space at 4525 W. Wendover Ave. in Greensboro – the site of the existing shelter. Albright said the current Animal Shelter site doesn’t appear suitable for the ES facility even though it is in the right general area. He said traffic on Wendover Avenue near that address limits mobility and access and he added that the topography of that site is far from ideal for construction. He said that the same factors that make the site a difficult place to build a new animal shelter make it a problematic place to build an ES vehicle service facility.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said the new ES facility will need about 10 acres of land or a little less.
“It would vary depending on aspect ratio, availability of utilities, storm water requirements, etc., but in general 8 to 10 acres [would be needed],” McNiece said.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said there’s unquestionably a great need for an improved ES maintenance facility and that he’s anxious for the project to move forward. He said that the expanding department has been making do for years with a facility that’s inadequate in many respects.
“The current property is way, way, way long overdue for modification and expansion,” Branson said.
Branson also said he and others have even explored an option of building the new animal shelter and new ES maintenance facility next to each other.
Branson said the process of finding a new location for the ES vehicle repair center has been aggravating over the years.
“It’s been back and forth on properties,” he said. “And, without getting into the weeds, we’ve had some complications.”
He added that the price tag for the facility is likely to increase the longer it takes to get started.
“The cost is not going down,” Branson said.
He said an important project like this taking so long is something you would see only from government.
“Nothing happens expediently in county, federal or state government,” he said. “It’s not like in the private sector.”
Like Albright, Branson said he doesn’t see the current animal shelter site as a good fit for the coming ES service and repair facility. He said that, once the shelter moves, he expects a lot of buyers will be interested in that piece of real estate near a major concentration of retail businesses and restaurants.
“You can see a lot of earth being moved right across the street from the current shelter and there’s not a doubt in my mind some developer would like to have that site,” Branson said.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said the county’s current plans involve establishing the ES facility in phases, with the first phase likely costing somewhere between $6 million and $7 million.
Phillips said zoning and rezoning considerations were being assessed for one site option.
The Board of Commissioners held a closed session at its Thursday, Dec. 15 meeting to discuss real estate acquisition and other topics.