PITTSBORO — Chatham County and Pittsboro commissioners met jointly last Thursday to talk about Chatham’s future, having discussions about the relocation and centralization of county services, the Pittsboro Town Hall project, water and sewer, Parks and Recreation and economic development.
This is the first joint meeting the two entities had held since before the pandemic, according to several commissioners present at the event.
Thursday’s first agenda item was the county’s plan to relocate its services hub to Renaissance Drive in Pittsboro — a move which, according to County Manager Dan LaMontagne, would help consolidate county services into one central location and provide additional space for county offices.
“We are getting very tight on space there,” LaMontagne said.
This property is around 250 acres by the landfill and the Chatham County Detention Center. County services’ current location at the south end of the traffic circle in downtown Pittsboro is four acres.
LaMontagne said the county’s 2022-23 budget has allocated funds for various surveys and studies on the property to evaluate its financial feasibility.
“If county services are going to be in one central place, we want to see how that could be an asset to you as you’re building and moving into your new spaces and whether there are opportunities to collaborate in that space,” Chatham County Commissioner Chairperson Karen Howard said.
Referencing Pittsboro’s new project to build a larger town hall, Howard suggested that Pittsboro use the old county facilities after services are relocated as a temporary town hall while the new one is being developed.
Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy, though, said the board put new town hall’s construction “on ice” for now.
“The board met as a group several months ago and said the project is unaffordable right now,” Kennedy said.
The proposed town hall project would cost Pittsboro $26 million, meaning the town would have to take out multi-million loans or receive grants to finance the project.
Kennedy said he’d been in conversations with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for the last year to try to receive federal funding for the project, but the back-and-forth conversations with the USDA had not gone the way he anticipated.
“We’ve been chasing down bank letters, trying to prove to USDA that we cannot find equal lending terms in the private market,” Kennedy said. “We’re really kind of at the point of telling the USDA to either approve the project or don’t.”
Instead of using the property near the traffic circle as a temporary town hall, Pittsboro Commissioner John Bonitz suggested using public land for affordable housing and commercial development.
“So many of our properties in town belong to a nonprofit, which is the government,” Bontiz said. “We could have public-private partnerships where the land is retained in public ownership, but is leveraged with special agreements for development to occur … for nice things like affordable housing that we so desperately need.”
Howard supported Bontiz’s idea, but said commissioners need to consider all options as to how to best utilize the property.
“It could make for a beautiful housing unit,” she said. “I guess what you guys should be thinking is: is affordable housing at the circle the highest and best use for that space, or is there somewhere for affordable housing?”
Pittsboro gave a presentation to the county commissioners regarding their intent to partner with Sanford to merge both water infrastructures.
“We’re in the infancy stages in many ways of the actual agreement of it (the merger with Sanford),” Kennedy said. “Both parties could pull out of [it if] we don’t find it advantageous, but we don’t believe that to be the case — we don’t believe we would’ve gotten this far if this was a marriage we couldn’t make work.”
Pittsboro announced their intent to merge with Sanford on May 23, and Sanford will decide if they agree to the merger during its June 21 meeting.
Sanford and Pittsboro staff met to discuss the framework for merging the systems, and Kennedy said the two municipalities would use models from other cities, such as Raleigh, Zebulon and others.
“One of the biggest fears is the unknown of how merging actually works,” he said. “We feel very confident that we’re going to provide a very good document, an instrument that allows this to happen.”
Kennedy also told commissioners that the fast track granular activated carbon (GAC) project at the Pittsboro Water Treatment plant is “moving along well” and should go live within the next 30 to 45 days. The GAC project would allow the facility to effectively treat water for the removal of PFAS.
Commissioners also discussed collaboration possibilities between each entity’s Parks & Recreation departments.
According to Kennedy, Pittsboro plans to expand its Park & Recreation programming and staff. Next year’s town budget has alloted funds for two new department, as well as several new parks and facilities, including a sports complex planned to be along Moncure-Pittsboro Road.
“We’re looking at being between 40 and 50 acres, depending on how that develops,” he said.
County Commissioner Franklin Gomez Flores suggested creating a countywide intramural sports league, where participants would travel to different parts of the county to engage in competitive sports, such as soccer or basketball.
“The idea would be more so to have the northeast park of the county have their own teams, along with Pittsboro, Siler City and the rural areas in the county,” Gomez Flores said. “They could create a team or two per sport and then travel amongst each other to the different areas of the county.”
Gomez Flores also said the league would allow for people to visit areas of the county they otherwise may not have, which would also encourage out-of-towners to support businesses in the towns they visit.
“This would not only stimulate the local economy,” he said, “but it would also help to bring more unity into the county, as well as get residents to understand different perspectives.”
LaMontagne expressed support for Gomez Fores’ idea, saying it would not only reap economic benefits, but it could be a fun thing for residents to do.
“I would like to partner because it’s nice to have a county league and a city league,” LaMontagne said. “It’s nice to have competition, and the more people that you have, the more often you have tournaments.”
The two boards also discussed several economic development opportunities, including the possibility of a new hotel at Powell Place — a Holiday Express.
Kennedy revealed on Thursday that the town is in conversations with the hotel chain, but first needed to clarify whether the chain has necessary utility capacity for the project before moving forward.
Kennedy also said he wants to ensure the town can support the county in future development endeavors, be that for hotels such as the Holiday Express, or other opportunities that may arise.
“Certainly, we are a contributor to the EDC and want to promote some of those things beyond just Commissioner (Kyle) Shipp’s role on that board,” Kennedy said.
Howard said she sees a lot of opportunity for the two boards to collaborate on economic development, particularly within Chatham Park.
“I think that intergovernmental piece is critical that we kind of know what your game plan is, what your vision for major investment in Pittsboro looks like and how we support that,” she said.
Howard said it would also be a good idea to work with community colleges, the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and other groups to encourage economic development within Pittsboro and the county as a whole.
Bonitz supported this idea, adding that this could also encourage the development of smaller, local businesses. With more larger businesses coming, such as Vinfast, he said he believes it is more important for the county and town to continue supporting local businesses.
“I feel like we have landed our mammoth, we’ve landed our whale, and there will be other whales that follow that,” he said. “So I am very eager to do everything I can to support small business development, small business incubation, support and retention of existing small businesses.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.
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