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October 22, 2020

Town of Spencer forging ahead five years after drafting plans for Park Plaza

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SPENCER — Park Plaza’s future has been been an open question for decades, but town leaders are beginning to turn penciled-in plans into permanent ones.

It was built in the 1960s on a parcel that used to be a park when the town was booming with business from the railroad. As railroad work moved away from Spencer Shops, the town decided to turn the former gathering place into a shopping center with the hope of attracting more commerce to the area. It worked for a time, but in the 1990s things took a turn for the worse.

The center could not keep a steady stable of businesses, as they would move in and out constantly, leaving more storefronts empty than occupied. Some of them have been empty for 30 years or more. And while the shopping center was struggling, the town had facility issues of its own.

The town’s municipal building was adapted from an old rail dormitory. It was never intended as a place for government business, and Interim Town Manager David Treme said issues with the facility were discussed for years before the town took an earnest look at the facility in 2015. Treme says he’s taken the effort on as a bigger priority during his tenure as interim manager, which began more than a year ago.

A study the town commissioned showed outdated infrastructure, including its electric and plumbing systems as well as crumbling masonry. The town uses window units for heating and air, and it can cost the town thousands to heat the building in the winter.

Spencer Police Chief Mike James told the Post about the issues the department had with office space and evidence rooms for a story in 2017. James said the issues still exist and the department needs more space. When marijuana is seized, the smell tends to permeate offices, and clothes of victims who have died go into the lockers as well.

Despite the challenges, James said the way the department runs is up to standard and probably have more resources than some other departments.

It was January 2019 when the town finally purchased Park Plaza after a few years of tentative plans being sorted to completion. Then, there were price-related construction issues. When the town solicited construction bids about a year ago, they came in at about double the $3.9 million project estimate. The town tried to negotiate with the lowest bidder, but it could not come to an agreement. Mayor Jonathan Williams, an engineer, said he was not surprised when the bids came in high.

“Frankly, we were probably kidding ourselves,” Williams said.

Williams said he took an interest in unfinished town projects, and it is one of the reasons he ran for the board.

The original bid and project was the product of the old board and former town manager. The town has cycled through three town mangers since the project came on the radar, and Treme, who is technically retired, is set to be replaced by assistant manager Peter Franzese.

Now the project scope has been narrowed. The town worked with its architect, Studio Wales, to value engineer the renovations and remove plans for a park on the corner of Salisbury and Fifth Street.

Reworking the project to go out to bid cost the town another $24,900 in architect fees, though the construction estimate was lowered by $9,000.

Williams still thinks the town is getting a lot of value out of the project, especially considering the constantly increasing cost of construction and that building a new facility would cost the town millions more.

“Based on my experience, I feel like we’re getting a very, very good value for the project,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t call it an expensive project for what we’re doing.”

The project was rebid and awarded to Vertex Construction in July.

“It may have worked out for our benefit,” Treme said, adding the bids were more reasonable for the second bid.

Spencer’s plans aim to provide suitable office space, but it’s also an effort to invest in the towns future, officials said. If no one else will invest in the town’s future, the town itself will, Treme said. Board members say they felt like shying away from the project would not be a good way to attract other investment to the town.

The now-removed park would be about $1 million on its own, but Williams said the town is committed to making that project happen at some point, possibly with the help of grants and private funding. The town is hoping for a final by the Local Government Commission in December on financing plans for the project, and an eight-to-10-month construction period.

Last month, the town approved contracting for supplemental funding with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an additional of $256,000 as part of a $2.8 million deal with the department. In the meantime, the board is securing an interim loan through a private lender. After the project is complete, the USDA funding would then be used to pay off the construction loan.

Treme said the town has a bid from BB&T  with a 1.54% interest rate for interim financing.

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