By Gracie Hart Brooks
Split down the middle was the approximate sentiment from last week’s public hearing regarding the potential purchase of the Moore Building.
The lease for the building, located at 110 Main Street, ends Dec. 31, 2019 and requires notification of intentions to extend the lease for another term by Oct. 1, 2019 and includes a purchase option which requires three months prior written notice. The 6,200 square foot building currently houses the county visitor center and economic development and tourism office. Space has also recently been subleased to the Literacy Council and there is meeting space upstairs used by a variety of non-profits, community organizations and county subcommittees.
The county owned the building, which according to supervisors was in terrible shape, before opting to sell it to current owner Kenneth Moore in 2001 for $25,000. Since renovated by Moore, the building is now rented to the county for $1,408.38 per month. The county has the option to purchase the building for $295,000.
During budget work sessions earlier this year, supervisors set aside funds for the potential purchase of the property. The idea would be to use transient occupancy tax (TOT) revenue to cover the costs associated with the visitor center portion of the building. A small portion of the building costs are already being covered by the Literacy Council in rent and the upstairs spaces could be rented as offices. There’s also a possibility of grant funding from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
Among the supervisors, chairman Clay Jackson is in favor of purchasing the building. He said recently conducted inspections found only minor issues, including slight roof repairs, rotted window sills, sidewalk cracks, cracked windows and a hot water extension pipe replacement, all of which he said Moore will fix prior to the sale. Moisture leaks in the basement are an issue, but in-kind remediation work has been completed by the Literacy Council. Mold reports found two types of mold, but he said, neither were anything special. To offset the purchase cost, Jackson said six upstairs offices could potentially be rented out for approximately $200 per month per office. He said if the building were to be purchased, the county would need to move forward with offloading some other properties including the Thrift Road complex and the former ABC Building on Main Street which is currently used by the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.
On the opposing side is supervisor Charlotte Hoffman. She said the Moore Building is sick with a wet basement, mold, an aging HVAC system, no attic insulation and rustic/rotting supports. She said she wants to get out of the building, moving the visitor center down the street to the Arcade, which is currently owned by the county, but leased to the historical society. The society also allows the Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services Board (RRCSB) to utilize a portion of the 600 square foot space to offer in-county mental health services three days a week.
However, tourism and economic development director Tracey Gardner said the Arcade won’t work as a location for the visitor center. She said it doesn’t have enough space to allow the center to retain its certification which allows Madison visitor information to placed in all of the other visitor centers throughout the state as well as the state-owned welcome centers. She also noted that the building’s one bathroom is not ADA compliant, and if renovated to be so, would only cut down on the space for the visitor center. She said in addition to having county information appear in visitor and welcome centers, being certified also allows for the large directional signs located on Rt. 29 which help bring visitors into the county.
Madison County Commonwealth’s Attorney Clarissa Berry said a loss of the Arcade space to the visitor center would put the RRCSB’s use of the space into jeopardy. She said the space has also been shown to Jefferson Area Community Corrections as a potential space to meet with clients. The agency is currently utilizing space at the courthouse which is largely unavailable on days when court is in-session. She said she’d also like it to potentially be a place for those with felonies to meet with probation. They’re currently traveling to Charlottesville for services.
County residents Daniel Crigler and Mike Fisher suggested an additional inspection of the Moore Building. Fisher said he’s mixed on the issue noting that tourism brings in a lot of money for the county, but that there is already too much county-owned property. He suggested making offloading the Thrift Road property a requirement for purchasing the Moore Building.
“If you wait, you’ll have another Criglersville issue on your hands, a building no one wants,” Fisher said.
County resident Bruce Bowman agreed with Crigler and Fisher regarding an additional inspection to ensure the building’s structural integrity.
“Until you open the wall up and see inside, you don’t know what’s in there,” Bowman said. “I’d be very careful about buying something that might be a nightmare.”
Carlyle Weaver noted that he worked on the remodel of the building, done previously by county staff in which the space was redesigned, including the removal of walls.
“I didn’t see anything to be concerned about,” he said. I think the county has the opportunity to buy it back if [space is needed] for a much better cost than what it would have cost to fix it [initially]. That building will be there when everything is gone. You can’t build something 6,000 square feet for that cost. I would hate for someone to buy it and let it go into disrepair.”
He agreed with others that the Thrift Road property should be sold.
Historical society president Max Lacy noted that the society has a lease for the Arcade until 2029. He said the building is used more than half the days of the month, in addition to storage and research space for the society. He said moving the items from the building would create a hardship, noting all of the items are related to Madison County.
Business owner Janine Jensen said tourism brings in $35 million annually in Madison County. She said the costs to purchase the Moore Building are minimal for that kind of return.
Graves Mountain Lodge’s Lynn Graves agreed, saying the visitor center needs to stay in the Moore Building. He said it’s a good building with adequate space, especially if funding is able to be used from the TOT fund, which is comprised of tax revenue from visitors who are staying in Madison County and not permanent residents. He said moving the office will make it hard for visitors to find.
Steve Barber questioned if the Moore Building would be a money pit, costing lots annually to keep safe. He suggested a needs assessment for county space.
Planning commission chairman Carty Yowell said the visitor center needs to stay in the Moore Building.
“We need a vibrant downtown [and it’s] supplying some foot traffic around town,” he said.
He asked if extending the lease would be an option to allow more discussion time to make a plan for offloading other county properties. Jackson said Mr. Moore has expressed his desire to sell the building and not continue renting it.
Linda Farnam said she’s retired and on a fixed-income, but that there’s a certain ambiance to Main Street which is what tourists come for. She said she likes having the visitor center in a central location.
Connie Aylor, who is an assistant at the visitor center, said visitors come in seven days a week. She said there’s nothing wrong with the center’s current building.
Madison County Circuit Court Clerk Leeta Louk noted that she often meets visitors conducting genealogy research. She said they comment about how nice the visitor center is, stating that they’ve visited others that haven’t been so great.
Business owner Clint Hyde suggested building a central location for all county services, something Jackson said would be cost prohibitive.
Bill Jordan said the 93-year-old building’s age doesn’t bother him, stating that it’s a good investment if it’s needed now and in the future.
Supervisor Kevin McGhee said he’s willing to support purchasing the Moore Building, but agreed an evaluation by a structural engineer is needed. He also said he wouldn’t support the sale unless there was a commitment to at least unload the Thrift Road property off the county’s books.
Supervisor Amber Foster agreed, stating the Arcade building wouldn’t be large enough for the visitor center to retain its certification. Like McGhee, she said the supervisors should commit to selling the Thrift Road property.
“It’s crucial we take action on our capital improvement project plan,” she said. “Many projects have been put off for years and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.”
Supervisor Jonathon Weakley agreed. He said the county has always fallen behind the schools on the capital improvement needs that are addressed. He agreed with committing to offload other properties including at least Thrift Road as well as ordering a structural engineer evaluation. Regardless, he said he doesn’t want to see the decision take months.
“Make a decision and move on,” he said.
Hoffman said she’s not trying to run Gardner out or kick the historical society out of the Arcade. She said she doesn’t think the Moore Building is needed and noted the RRSCB may be able to utilize space in the former ABC Building.
“I’ve had more people say [to me] not to purchase [the building] than to purchase it,” she said.
Jackson continued to support the purchase, noting that selling Thrift Road would probably be a win for the county and addressing the ABC Building would likely be further down the road. He said he had no issues with order a structural engineer evaluation and noted that had the county initially did a rent-to-own situation purchasing the building would have likely been cheaper.
County administrator Jack Hobbs said in his honest opinion, he would probably not buy the building. His reason, he said, was because the plan for it was too loose and its future use was questionable. He also noted the county currently has Thrift Road, the ABC Building, Criglersville and the Arcade which are underutilized. He said TOT funding could be used to fix the Arcade. Plus, he noted there are additional expenses when owning a building versus renting including maintenance and that putting tenants in the upstairs offices of the Moore Building will take time. However, he said it’s going to be hard to not buy the building since it’s less than six months from the drop dead date in the lease.
Finance director Mary Jane Costello said the real issue is having a plan for county real estate. She said if the purchase was being done willy nilly it would be hard to support, but if it were part of reducing the county’s footprint and efficiency it wouldn’t be.
Gardner noted that local businesses Plow & Hearth, Early Mountain and Inn at Meander Plantion owner Chris Seek had all voiced support for the visitor center remaining in the Moore Building.
County board clerk Jacqueline Frye, when asked, said the Arcade looks very small and customers seems to be happy with the visitor center.
“A happy customer is a good customer,” she said.
Supervisors instructed Hobbs to work on obtaining a structural engineer. The topic is expected to be revisited during the Aug. 13 board meeting.