Burgawa revamps former EMS building despite public concerns over cost
In Burgaw, commissioners and officials gather at the historic railroad depot for meetings and it’s not always easy for locals to hear what the leaders are discussing.
“It’s difficult for them to interact with the public,” City Manager James H. Gantt said. “The echo is so bad here, it’s hard to hear.”
It’s a good location for events such as weddings, but it’s not ideal for city business — and there’s not enough space at the town hall.
The renovation of the old EMS building on Wilmington Street should put an end to these complaints. Located across from the courthouse and vacant for years, the building has become a downtown eyesore. Some of the major plans include establishing offices for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, a small conference room, a large event space, and a rescue and recovery center.
This is one of many improvement and revitalization efforts in Burlaw.
“It’s a great city,” Gantt said. “We want to build on that greatness and continue to improve where we can.”
The projected cost of the project is $1.27 million and over $221,000 in contingency funds for outdoor parking improvements and other construction expenses. However, some question the financial aspects and issues related to previous decisions, such as former mayor Eugene Mulligan.
With any project, Gantt said there will be people who take both sides.
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“There are business owners or individuals like Mr. Mulligan who are not happy with the direction of the board, but it is entirely within the ability and control of the board to make these kinds of improvements to their facilities,” Gantt said.
Add more space
Plans are underway to renovate the metal building built in the 1970s, which shares a campus with the town hall. Pender EMS and Rescue, Inc. moved in 2011 before the city took over ownership shortly thereafter. EMS operations have moved to new facilities on Ridgewood Avenue in Burgaw.
Gantt said the condition of the old EMS building has worsened over the years. He raised the matter before the Burlaw Board of Commissioners in 2019.
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The city went through a phase of finding an architect and a contractor through a tendering process. Guidry-Coastal Architecture was chosen to design the project and Environments Unlimited was hired as the construction contractor. The companies are based in Wilmington.
Gantt also said the city has taken other steps such as getting approval from state officials through the Local Government Commission (LGC), which oversees municipal finances.
The bid for the building was just under $1.3 million, which was less than expected. The work will include a complete removal of internal components, structures and fixtures. A new addition will be added to the front, along with a brick exterior for the entire building.
New walls, floors, ceilings and more will come. Exterior works include landscaping, installation of a digital bulletin board and paving to replace the gravel.
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It is also designed to be a multi-purpose facility with a meeting room that can accommodate more than 263 people seated in chairs (or more depending on the event) and will also provide office and activity space for the parks and recreation department. Hobbies. This will free up space at the town hall. Current recreational activities take place at the train depot, which is a long, narrow hall. The Burlaw Community House is also available, but can only accommodate 50 people seated or 100 standing.
“It’s not a good event space for meetings and classes and stuff like that,” Gantt said. “This building will be more of a rectangle shape that will be able to house these types of events and the ability to have better sound quality and better hearing.”
During disasters or storms, showers will be installed to shelter emergency workers who must stay overnight to provide rescue services. Currently there are only two showers in Burgawa – one at the town hall and the other at the public works facility. Gantt recalled a recent winter storm where around 20 staff were staying in the office over the weekend.
“These employees had to take showers and one shower on site is not enough for the number of employees we normally have,” he said.
A waste of money and space?
In a letter sent to Wilmington StarNews, Mulligan, who called himself a concerned citizen, referred to the city’s 2017 purchase of the Bank of America building downtown for $100,000. He said the property has enough space for the municipal administration, a walk-through window for customers and 35 parking spaces.
He added that the council sold the building for $150,000 – but the tax value of the building was $284,000. Mulligan asked if anyone bothered to get a market appraisal value, especially if it wasn’t for sale.
Regarding space and upcoming renovations, Mulligan also complained that the current EMS building already had offices, a few bathrooms, a kitchen and a large bay window that could be useful. He also asked why it was necessary to borrow more money than the estimated cost.
The city secured a $1.5 million loan from the Truist Bank. During the bid and LGC approval process, city officials wanted to ensure that they had sufficient funding to accommodate the entire project without having to go back and revise the items later due to unforeseen construction costs.
“We don’t plan to spend the full $1.5 million, it’s just what our loan is approved for,” Gantt said.
At a January 25 meeting, Commissioner Vernon Harrell said he was concerned about the cost of the project and that he felt the city should not spend that amount of money at this time and wait a year. He was not alone. Commissioner William E. George III said he was thinking about the project and didn’t have a good idea and thought the planning had been a bit rushed.
“They chose to do this and I’m with them,” George said. “I’m a commissioner. It’s my job.”
After more discussion, Harrell made a motion against advancing, which was seconded by George. Commissioners James Malloy, Wilfred Robbins and Jan Dawson voted against, showing their support for the project. Votes with unanimous approval for Truist and a funding deal followed.
Although Brown was against starting the project this year, he made the decision to approve the loan at the January 25 meeting since his colleagues were in favor of the construction project. Brown added that he is bound by oath to do the best he can and support the goals set by the majority of board members.
“There are people who feel the same way, but the majority of the board voted to go ahead with the project and I will do my part to make sure everything is done as it should be” , he added. “And not making any negative comments here and there, and getting upset or angry, and expressing my disapproval. Like I said, the majority rules and it’s up to me to make sure it’s done and well done.”
A final resolution to accept funding terms for the EMS building renovation was approved by a 3-2 vote at a meeting on Tuesday, March 8. Along with Brown, Harrell voted against. Back in January, Harrell thought Truist would be the best financial provider for Burgaw. Although Harrell approves of using the space as a multi-space zone and a place for rescue workers, he thinks it’s too much money for a small town to pay back.
“I feel like $1.5 million is a lot to spend on this building,” he said. “I think we could have made better use of it by either changing the plans for this building to some degree or starting with a completely new building. That’s my feeling about it. I just don’t think that it’s a good use of the money this time.”
The loan is for a 20-year term, with an annual principal repayment of $75,000. Mulligan asked how the city would get money to pay him, while contributing $2.5 million in reserve funds.
“Are they going to raise taxes, cut services, or are they already charging us too much tax?” Mulligan asked. “We already have a kitchen at the town hall and a commercial kitchen at the depot, and meeting rooms at the depot and at the town hall. The commune, in fact, rents offices to others in the depot. Two former mayors, a former commissioner and two of our current five commissioners have publicly opposed borrowing this money.”
As of now, the Burlaw board has not decided to raise taxes for this. Gantt said he would be paid through approved revenue streams.
“That’s what the plan is right now,” Gantt said. “Could taxes be increased at some point in a budget year? They could be, but that’s a decision the council makes from year to year where they see the city financially and what must be accomplished.”
Gantt said Burlaw has a strong fund balance and reserves. The LGC requires the city to have a certain amount of funds. If it is less than the requirement, the LGC will get involved. Gantt mentioned cities that are under the control of the LGC, which has the ability to raise water and sewer taxes or rates.
“They can completely take over the city’s finances,” he said. “That’s how North Carolina, through the General Assembly, is organized, how cities and counties are governed. That way you don’t have something like the city of Detroit that declare bankruptcy. You don’t have towns and cities in North Carolina that are declaring bankruptcy due to the strong control the LGC has over the city’s finances.”
For reserves, Gantt added that natural disasters are another reason to have a healthy pot since Burlaw is a coastal community, in hopes the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the town.
“We need to have those funds in our account, so we don’t have to worry about going through a disaster-like situation,” Gantt said.
Journalist Chase Jordan can be reached at [email protected]