LUMBERTON — Robeson County commissioners have for years considered the former BB&T building on Chestnut Street as the ideal site for locating county offices under one roof and an easy walk to the Robeson County Courthouse.
The building is a prominent landmark in downtown Lumberton and has been trumpetted as the solution to ending overcrowding at the courthouse, which houses state and county agencies.
But Commissioner Roger Oxendine recently suggested the county consider giving the building to the Public Schools of Robeson County for use as a central office. The county could then choose a new site and build its own building to satisfy county office needs, he said during the county’s annual retreat in Raleigh.
The school system’s central office on N.C. 711 just west of Interstate 95 was destroyed during Hurricane Matthew and the flooding that followed, and must be moved out of the flood zone it was in.
“I’m just suggesting we look at this possibility,” Oxendine said. “We could build our own building cheaper.”
Studies have estimated that renovations to the BB&T building would be about $12 million. Oxendine said he believes a new building could be constructed for $6 million or $7 million.
The school district could use money reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for loss of its central office to Hurricane Matthew’s floodwaters to renovate the BB&T building, Oxendine said.
The county already has told members of the Public Schools of Robeson County’s school board that the county commissioners are toying with the idea of offering the county’s current administration building and seven other parcels containing three more buildings to the school system for about $2.5 million, said Dwayne Smith, a school board member. The county has not formally mentioned anything about the BB&T building, Smith said.
Patrick Pait, Robeson County’s attorney, said the county currently is looking for ways to pay for renovations to the BB&T building.
“At the present time we are pursuing to cover renovation costs through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Pait said. “We are still working through the application process.”
The county bought the BB&T parking lot on Chestnut Street in September 2011 for $650,000. The building itself was donated to the county by the family of the late Hector McLean, a prominent Lumberton banker and former city mayor and state senator.
County plans for the building call for it to eventually house the Tax Office, Register of Deeds, County Manager’s Office, Computer Operations, Finance and Human Resources Department, the county attorney, and Veterans Services.
Oxendine’s suggestion that consideration be given to handing the BB&T building over to the school district comes just as an architect hired by the commissioners is ready to start designing how the building should be set up to handle all of the county offices.
The Gensler architectural and planning firm is scheduled to begin design work soon for the proposed office complex, said Kellie Blue, Robeson County’s interim General Services manager andfinance director.
“When finished, you are going to have the best building in Lumberton,” Blue told the commissioners. “We are going to make you proud. This is going to be a showcase.
Commissioners Tom Taylor and David Edge say they want the building to remain with the county. It was Taylor and Edge who led the efforts to buy the building.
Edge said he has heard from a member of the Lumberton City Council that city officials wish they had bought the building. He told Oxendine that the schools don’t need as much office space as the county.
Taylor said Thursday that he thought everyone was on board with the project and was a “little surprised” when Oxendine raised the question of giving the property to the school district.
“We bought this property for office space, to help overcrowding in the courthouse, and because of the building’s close location to the courthouse,” Taylor said. “I thought everything was OK and we were moving in the right direction.”
The county offices need to be in the BB&T building, he said. Offices are currently scattered throughout the county.
“With the BB&T building we can get everyone downtown,” he said.
Mike Smith, a longtime school board member, isn’t so sure the BB&T building would best serve the school district’s needs. The board has not researched the building.
“I’d like to see some long-term plans for a comprehensive facility,” Smith said. “It would be a lot of work to get the building ready for us.”
School board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee believes the U.S. 74 warehouse area would be the perfect location for the central office complex.
“If they give us the BB&T building we need to look at it, but I think we need a central location,” she said. “If we’ve got to spend money, we need to spend it on somewhere we can locate to permanently.”
Dwayne Smith is against the BB&T building, and wants the county to come through with its original offer that includes the current county administration building on North Elm Street in downtown Lumberton.
“Why should we take one building that will cost us $12 million to renovate when we can get eight parcels that include four existing buildings for about $2.5 million? Even with a couple million worth of additional work on the existing buildings we would still only spend about $4 million,” Smith said.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165. Staff writer Mike Gellatly contributed to this story. He can be reached at 910-816-1989.