County can put BB&T building back to work

Now that the county has been relieved of its promise to dedicate millions of dollars a year for the noble purpose of placing our children into shiny, safe and new schools, its attention has turned to another project, one that is of a more selfish nature, but high on the must-do list — renovating the old BB&T building in downtown Lumberton to claim new office space.

On Monday night, Commissioner David Edge made a motion that carried in a 6-2 vote to begin figuring out exactly what to do with the building and how to pay for it. Latest estimates are as much as $9 million in renovations are needed, a lot of money to manage without a tax increase, but that might be possible through the magic of long-term financing and beckoning interest rates that are historically low.

The building has been a tiger by the tail since Robeson County acquired it in 2011. When BB&T moved its corporate headquarters two decades ago, the three-floor, 64,000-square-foot building suddenly far exceeded the bank’s needs locally. The county was able to get a sweetheart deal, purchasing the parking lot for $650,000 in a deal that included the donation of the building. Since then, the building has stared down on downtown, packed with potential, but costly to get functioning.

The county has not budgeted any money for the project in the current fiscal year, but County Manager Ricky Harris said he would bring some financing options to the Board of Commissioners for its first meeting in September. What Harris will find is now is a great time to borrow money, which underscores the whiff on the effort to build new schools.

The county government has grown along with the county itself, the most visible example being the Department of Social Services building sandwiched between N.C. 72 and N.C. 711, just west of Lumberton.

The county has already paid for a plan that found it will cost $9 million for architectural work, asbestos abatement and to furnish the building — a figure that will only go up with time. Currently the county has about 25,000 square feet for administrative offices such as County Manager, Finance and Human Resources, and renovating the BB&T building would double that amount of space, and allow for the transfer of some offices, including Tax and Register of Deeds, out of the courthouse, which is getting squeezed to death.

What is needed is clever financing so there is no pain to taxpayers. We know also that the county is now renting space, and that money could be redirected toward making the payments. It’s even possible that the county could rent some space in the BB&T building for a private purpose, such as a modest restaurant where employees could have lunch.

Not only will the renovated BB&T building provide space the county needs, the public will be better served by housing the Tax and Register of Deeds offices there, and the project furthers downtown revitalization by putting a key piece of real estate back to work.

This is something that needs to happen and can. It helps that the state Treasurer’s Office and the local Board of Education are powerless to stand in the way of this bit of progress.

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