DOBSON — Amid the town’s attempts to attract a business to a local, vacated property, a Dobson official claims county officials may have told economic development personnel to quit marketing the building.
“I wanted to inform all of you that Surry County is considering purchasing the Just Save building,” wrote Dobson Town Manager Josh Smith to the Dobson Board of Commissioners.
“In doing so, they have asked the Surry County EDP (Economic Development Partnership) to hold off on any efforts to market that site and find another tenant that would create much needed jobs for our community.”
In August Lowe’s Foods closed its Just Save location at 911 E. Atkins St. in Dobson. Since that time, Smith and the town have been reaching out to EDP officials in hopes of getting a tenant in the building.
There are multiple reasons for the town’s interest in the future of the property, as the county may look to the building for its capital needs.
“Acquiring this property will add another $2.2 million in assessed property to the tax exempt list, resulting in the town losing an additional $8,500 per year in tax revenues,” wrote Smith in a letter to County Manager Chris Knopf, which was dated Nov. 30, 2015.
Smith goes on to note the loss in ad valorem tax revenue is equivalent to one cent on the town’s property tax rate.
The county owns property in the town limits worth a total of about $28 million. If privately owned, the county administration building, which is valued in excess of $10 million, would equate to nearly $40,000 in property tax revenue.
Properties owned by Surry County Schools are valued at a total of $15.5 million. The property owned by Surry Community College is valued at nearly $31 million. In total, properties which are non-taxable because they are owned by governmental entities other than the town account for $74.5 million in assessed value, or more than $283,000 in potential property taxes.
Dobson’s annual general fund budget is a little more than $1 million.
Smith admitted there are advantages to being the county seat, such as jobs created at lunch destinations and other businesses that those who are employed by the county frequent, as well as people traveling to town to conduct business or attend school.
However, with so much exempt property within the town limits, the town has little room to attract property owners who do pay taxes. Additionally, the town does not receive the benefits of added sales tax revenues as a result of being the county seat.
Surry County distributes sales tax revenues on a per-capita basis — how many people actually reside in the town limits, said Smith, meaning the town loses out on revenue because of a lack of residential properties in Dobson.
Smith also noted the many government-owned properties in Dobson utilize town services (like police and fire departments), without sharing in the costs of providing those services. The Dobson Police Department responds to more than 400 calls each year at county-owned properties.
Smith said he would not want to see additional properties within the town limits become tax-exempt.
However, taxes aren’t the only reason for the town’s interest in the future of the property. Smith said the Just Save building once provided jobs to local residents, and he’d prefer to see it once again providing jobs.
The town manager also conveyed a need for shell buildings in order to attract businesses to the county, noting the 40,000-square-foot building could serve as a location for such a business and play host to jobs for local residents.
As for the possibility of getting another grocer as a tenant for the property, which is owned by Dobson Plaza, LLC, the chances look grim, according to emails between Smith and EDP president Todd Tucker.
On Jan. 23 Tucker indicated he had sent information regarding the available space to at least 15 discount and grocery store chains. He had not heard back from any of those store contacts.
Tucker also indicated he was never asked to cease his marketing efforts. In fact, emails show Tucker was actively pursuing a tenant for the property throughout January.
At the town meeting, Smith noted he had not given up on attracting a new business to the location, though officials might need to look outside of the realm for which the property was most recently used.
Smith said the town could look at setting up the location for use as a call center, as the EDP receives inquiries from companies requesting a location in which they can plug in and start doing business on a regular basis. Tucker is looking into the possibility.
The concerns regarding the future of the former Just Save store became public at a recent meeting of the Dobson Board of Commissioners, with one commissioner relaying the concerns of residents to fellow board members, town officials and others at the meeting.
“I’ve never heard more complaints,” said Dobson Commissioner John Lawson. “Food Lion can’t handle that much business.”
Lawson explained when Just Save shut its doors, the Food Lion on East Atkins Street became the only grocery store in town. At least 60 people had complained about wait times at the store.
He’d like to see those concerns addressed by courting another grocer to the former Just Save location, but he said the town can only do so much. It can market the building, but there’s certainly no guarantee a grocery store will set up shop at the location.
The county’s interest in the property became known only after a review of correspondence — including the aforementioned emails and letter — obtained by way of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Town Commissioner Robin Testerman was the only commissioner to respond to an email from Smith regarding the county’s intention to purchase the property.
“They probably want it for juvenile and adult probation. They are homeless, without an office,” wrote Testerman. “They are in trouble with the state, and the State DPS (Department of Public Safety) is pushing back hard.”
County Chairman Eddie Harris confirmed his board has shown some interest in the property, though he did not know what department or departments the building would house if the county was to purchase the property.
“A few months ago the owners (of 911 E. Atkins St.) quietly approached the county to see if we had any interest in purchasing the property,” explained Harris. “There’s not a lot more to it than that.”
Harris said the building “warrants a look” given the county’s need for more space and the building’s proximity next door to the Surry County Government Center on Hamby Road. A few commissioners, including Harris, have done a walk-through of the building, but no prices have been discussed.
It wouldn’t be the first time the county bought an old retail property, noted Harris. In the ’90s, Surry County purchased a former Lowe’s Hardware building off of Rockford Road in Mount Airy behind Arby’s and Burger King. It was converted into the human services building.
Harris stated he does not know of any conversation with EDP officials which resulted in a county official asking EDP officials to cease attempts at marketing the building.
The chairman also said he understands the town’s concerns, but, in the end, his board will make its decisions based on what is in the best interests of the county.
Smith also floated another idea to return the building to the hands of the private sector to his board by way of email.
“Dobson does not have many buildings that are suitable for retail or other commercial business. This is one of the best buildings that has come available in a long time, and I would hate to see it go to a tax-exempt entity that will not use the building to create new jobs,” wrote Smith to his board.
He noted the town should convey the concerns by way of a letter to county officials, but he also addressed another manner in which the town could counter the county’s interest in the building.
“I also think we should remain open-minded and explore any and all options, to include bidding against the county for this building should they move forward with their decision to purchase it,” added Smith.
“We could then place the building in the hands of the EDP or a developer to be marketed and sold down the road.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.