Commissioners debate merits of Ceramaspeed purchase

Blount County Commissioners will consider buying the Ceramaspeed property on McAuthur Road during the commission meeting Thursday night.

Bill Dunlap, Highway Superintendent, answered questions for almost an hour during the Nov. 6 commission workshop.

The commissioners had two resolutions before them. One was to authorize purchase of the $2.7 million structure and the second for a current appraisal to be done. At issue is the prospect of losing $750,000 already spent on preparing leased land beside the new Alcoa City Services building on North Wright Road.

“We’ve already spent close to a million on this,” said commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves. “If the county doesn’t build there, then it wasn’t a good deal for the county.”

Reeves also asked about the cost to heat the Ceramaspeed facility, and Dunlap said the utility costs could be cut down from $20,000 a month Ceramaspeed uses to the $1,600 a month the highway department uses because they won’t be heating and cooling the entire Ceramaspeed building.

Dunlap said the facility is 140,000 square feet of space with 40,000 of it being warehouse and 6,000 square feet occupied space.

“I see why you’re excited,” said Pitts Reeves. “It sounds great. It’s like looking at a Cadillac. What’s confusing me is we agreed on a $3 million project and now we’re up way past that. We can’t find a million dollars to fix roads people are dying on but can find a million dollars for a highway department building.”

Reeves said she would rather stick with the original space in Alcoa. “I would rather keep it at that,” she said. “Build less than we need, add to it later. I’m worried about where the economy is going. I think we should be very, very careful and exercise caution.”

Dunlap said he appreciated the concern and asked commissioners to consider the county now and in the near future. “This county is growing, and we have to grow with it,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Walker said he has tried to keep an open min regarding the Ceramaspeed purchase. “I think anyone would be fooling themselves if they couldn’t see the possibilities,” he said.

Walker shared concerns about access to the property and whether improvements would have to be made to the utilities and what improvements to McArthur Road..

Walker said he had heard that not only would the Highway Department be able to utilize the property, so would records, planning, building codes offices. “Unless those properties are sold or assigned to others, we’re not saving overhead,” he said.

Walker said the property is appraised for $3.1 million. “I have concerns with pulling $3.1 million off the tax roles,” he said, to which county finance director Dave Bennett said that amounted to $28,000 a year.

Walker asked about the timing. “A major concern is where is the money going to come from, creative financing scares me. It’s going to get hard on a lot of people real fast,” he said. “Some way, some how the county is going to have to tighten the purse strings.”

Walker also didn’t like the idea of building the structure on Alcoa property and then having to give it to Alcoa.

“I’m not building anything and giving it away. However I know when we first made the agreement, we would sell him the property and the contractor would build at Alcoa and that is what we needed, and that’s not happened. I think we ought be able to recoup based on good faith promises made in those commission meetings,” he said. “I will have hard time finding way to vote for this. I really don’t think everyone fully understands how tough things are going to get.”

Commissioner Bob Profit agreed the property was impressive. “There’s no question it appears to be worth the type of money they’re talking about. I think the resolution is premature,” he said. “I think our commission should have to detail the futures needs of the departments and other offices.”

Proffitt asked if there was any way to recoup any of the $750,000 already spent grading and preparing the property.

“If we chose this, there is a way to recoup that,” Dunlap said. “Dave Bennett is speaking with Alcoa.”

Commissioner Brad Harrison said that after touring the building, “if I had to build the building today, it would be between $5 million and $7 million. “I think it’s a good idea to get it reappraised. Looking at this from business standpoint, if we could purchase this 22-acres and this type facility, it’s a tremendous great opportunity,” he said.

Commissioner Kenneth Melton said he was amazed at the possibilities. “Bill could use it the way it is. I think it’s an excellent idea and a great place to look for the future of Blount County,” he said. “I’ve never liked idea of going to Alcoa.”

Melton said the Community Action Agency and Records could be moved from the old Hubbard School and that property sold. “In my opinion, I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Commissioner Gerald Kirby said it was an opportunity not to pass up. “I just don’t see how we can not buy this property. I just don’t think this time we can pass this deal up.”

Commissioner Ron French said if the Ceramaspeed building is bought, the $750,000 on site prep would be gone. “I don’t believe in spending money unnecessarily and don’t believe in buying something because it’s a good deal if we don’t need it. I think the county needs this. We need to take the future of the county in mind in looking at this facility. If we pass this up, we will not come up on another in our future.”

Mayor Jerry Cunningham was asked his recommendation, and he said that if the building were built on the Alcoa property, they would already be forced to scale down the size for space. “It concerned me that it wasn’t what was needed for the highway department,” he said.

Cunningham said he would recommend putting Environmental, Codes, Stormwater and other departments at the Ceramaspeed plant. He also echoed Melton’s sentiments about moving Records and Community Action Agency out of Hubbard and selling the property.

“Those monies could be used to pay ourselves back,” he said. “Another property we could sell is the old health department. That’s a hot piece of property but that would turn some apple carts over.”

The resolution was moved to the commission meeting for discussion by a voice vote.

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