Armory deal not good

The proposal by the city of Elkins to move forward at this time as the sole owner of the old National Guard Armory is administratively unwise and fiscally imprudent.

With this change in direction the City is considering moving unilaterally into a sole ownership position somewhat analogous to the disastrous attempt to keep the old city-county landfill viable and operational in the 1990s. Instead that facility has been a costly drag on the City’s finances and utility rates for a quarter of a century.

In the case of the armory, the Randolph County Commission has made the very wise decision to opt out of an ownership position with its consequent avoidance of future financial commitments to the project. This is due, no doubt, to the very effective leadership of Commissioner Mike Taylor, who, as President of the Commission, was a member of the committee reviewing possible options for the armory as it was coming up for disposal following construction of the new facility.

As mayor of the City of Elkins at the time, I too was a member of the committee. As such, both of us were privy to the studies undertaken to review options for the future use of the building and grounds. None of the proposals we reviewed indicated any reasonable possibility of the facility becoming self-sustaining at some point in time.

The armory is obsolete just as was the old landfill that drained the city for so many years. The Randolph County Commission wisely pulled out of that operation in the 1990s when it had the chance. For the city of Elkins to believe that this facility can be made cost effective after every study that has been made indicates the opposite is unwise public policy and fiscally imprudent. The situation is almost an exact replica of the egregious position the City assumed in the 1990s regarding the landfill.

There has been a very legitimate interest expressed on the part of the Mountain State Forest Festival to utilize some of this space. But the amount of funds that could be generated by the Forest Festival Association would only be a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of upgrade and operation of the facility.

It has also been suggested that the facility could be utilized as a convention center. But a convention center requires nearby accommodations to be successful. There are no hotel facilities reasonably close to the facility. Could a hotel be built there? Perhaps, but what is the likelihood of a hotel being built that is not in close proximity to stores, restaurants, entertainment, and other amenities?

And to do so would require zoning variations contrary to the area’s present use. Would the residents of the adjacent Oak Grove neighborhood and the Elkins Middle School folks be pleased with such an operation in their backyard?

The City has no business running a convention center or similar operation. There are no staff personnel with the professional expertise to manage such a facility and no administrative structure to accommodate it. There has been no consideration of the necessity for raising taxes to expand the budget to include line items dedicated to hiring professional staff within the city administration to provide the requisite oversight.

It has also been suggested that the armory be used as a Public Safety complex. Local administrative experience in other municipalities has indicated that effective management is lessened when the Police and Fire Departments are consolidated and moved a great distance from City Hall.

If new facilities are needed for these departments they should be built adjacent to City Hall and the opportunity utilized to bring that facility into ADA compliance. In addition, if the armory was used as a public safety building the Forest Festival Association would not be able to accommodate some of their functions.

The city is about to break ground for the new water plant and distribution system. That will be the biggest project in the City’s history. There are also other major projects underway including storm sewer separation and capping the landfill. In the absence of a city manager form of government the city is ill-prepared at best to administer such a collection of projects at this time. As it is right now, adding to this list would be administrative folly if not anarchy.

City revenues and commitments are already overextended as far as possible at the present time. These revenues are allocated at minimal levels for other purposes such as streets, financial administration, parks, police, and fire protection. They cannot be stretched further.

What little discretionary revenue that the city does have should be appropriated for legitimate uses such as street improvements, park development, addressing the abandoned property problem, and making the city a better place to live. To attempt to promote a non-economically sound project as a legitimate economic development activity is sheer folly and it creates no additional revenue for its support.

The City has failed to apply for home rule which would have given them a great deal more resources and flexibility to do this type of thing. It is essential that we move forward with fixing our form of local government before expanding into other activities. The City’s charter was adopted in the 19th century based on a model current at that time. Most municipalities have jettisoned this type of system and replaced it with a city manager form of government.

Just because a piece of real estate is well-priced does not mean it is appropriate for one’s portfolio. With major projects looming in the immediate future and no reasonable capability for managing more this project is best left behind.

As prudent shoppers everywhere know, it is not a good deal if you do not have any well-thought out idea for using an item when it is purchased – that is equivalent to buying something on sale just because it is on sale.

The city of Elkins should do exactly the same thing the Randolph County Commission has done and get out of this unviable project before it becomes an albatross around its neck such as the landfill was. To do otherwise would be a fiscal irresponsibility bordering on the highest order.

I applaud Commissioner Taylor’s leadership on this issue. He has done the right thing in convincing the County Commission to remove itself from the project. The city of Elkins should follow suit.