County eyes old Walmart

Hudson officials wary of new plan for exodus from city

HUDSON – The Columbia County Capital Resource Corporation and its director, Ken Flood, sponsored a meeting last week at the Elks Lodge to gather opinions from the community on the proposal to move a number of county departments from the city to the former Walmart in Greenport. What he and other county officials heard were serious concerns about the consequences such a move would have on city residents.

“A vacant Walmart building represents an option and an opportunity. We’re here to assess whether it’s an option the public finds attractive,” said Mr. Flood at the December 8 gathering.

This process started with a search for a new home for the county Department Social Services, which has outgrown the leased building it occupies at 25 Railroad Avenue in Hudson. The lease on that building expires in mid-2011. But that search has morphed into a project to relocate all the county offices at 401 State Street, 610 State Street and 325 Columbia Street. The court and clerk’s offices are not affected because Hudson remains the county seat.

If the offices of public service agencies relocate at the empty building that housed the old Walmart, many people live in Hudson who use those services and who are now able to walk to county offices would have to take buses. The impact of that change has not yet been considered, although busing was a part of the proposal two years ago, when the county was considering moving the Department of Social Services to old Ockawamick School in Claverack.

Other concerns high on the list of those present were the effects that moving a large number of county government jobs would have on city shops and other businesses, and the impact so many empty county office would have on commercial rents in the city.

“Twenty to 30 per cent of the people we serve, a total of 900 clients, walk to the clinic at 325 Columbia Street. I’m concerned about changes in access. It’s not as convenient for a substantial number of our clients,” said Michael Cole, director of County Community Services, a mental health services agency.

“It will have an enormous impact on Warren Street and downtown area businesses. That needs to be acknowledged. I don’t know if 325 Columbia is competitive for commercial space,” said Mr. Cole.

“You’re planning to dismantle the county seat. Hudson will be hurt. The plan seems to be traveling very fast down the road,” said Bart Delaney, supervisor of Hudson’s 5th Ward.

“There’s no question that the city of Hudson will be hurt, but we have to look at the big picture,” said Mr. Flood, who, in addition to heading the county Capital Resource Corporation, also He also serves as the county commissioner of planning and economic development, and executive director of the county Industrial Development Agency (IDA).

John Lyons asked if the county was getting input from service recipients. Mr. Flood said he was open to reaching out to clients.

Architect and planner Matthew Frederick questioned the environmental feasibility of the plan, which he said would encourage urban sprawl. “Moving services farther away from most of their clients increases the need for cars. An urban building is still a more efficient model than a free standing building,” he said.

If the county were to use the Walmart building, the departments and agencies slated to be moved include: Environmental Health, Mental Health, the Healthcare Consortium, Office for the Aging, Planning and Tourism, the Youth Bureau, Central Services, the Department of Public Works, the  Department of Social Services, Columbia Economic Development Corporation, Probation, Public Defender, County Historian, and the Backup 911 Center.

“Efficiency is the new buzz word,” said William Hughes Jr., Hudson’s 4th Ward supervisor. “You haven’t done much to make the agencies more efficient in terms of consolidation of agencies.”

Gathering opinions is part of the process, said Mr. Flood. Next, the county will sign a non-binding “binder” with Walmart, that would give the Capital Resource Corporation (CRC) four months of access to the building for the purpose of getting hard estimates of the costs of refitting the space for offices. That research would determine whether the project would be economically feasable. The “binder” agreement does not oblige the county to purchase the building if the numbers don’t work out.

The price of the Walmart building is now set at $2.7 million, down $500,000 from the original asking price, and interest rates are currently low, making shopping for real estate more tempting for the county. And not only is the lease about to expire on the building now occupied by the Department of Social Services, City of Hudson officials have expressed interest in buying that 25 Railroad Avenue structure to use for police and court facilities.

Mr. Flood said that county does not need all of the 125,000 square feet in the empty Walmart building. Social Services estimates say that department will need about 40,000 square feet 20 years from now.

If the county buys the building, Greenport stands to lose the $85,000 in taxes the commercial property currently pays unless the county makes up that loss with a payment to the town in lieu of the taxes. The roof on the old box store may need to be replaced.

“Walmart is not a solid building,” said Hudson Alderwoman Ellen Thurston.

“If you move out all paying tenants of the health building, who is going to pay the note on the building?” she asked, referring to the newest of the county office buildings, the one at 325 Columbia Street.

“What is the cost comparison between this and other options?” asked Common Council President, Don Moore. “What are the numbers for Okawamick in comparison to estimates for this?”

“Less than for Ockawamick,” answered Mr. Flood without providing specific figures.

Mr. Flood emphasized that the Walmart building is just an option. He asked his audience to suggest other options. He said he didn’t know of any but is open to other ideas.

The lack of other viable options currently on the table was viewed as a problem by those in attendance.

“If it’s just an option, why is there a special meeting on the 17th?” asked EllenThurston. “There are a lot of uncertainties and one is cost.”

“Is this an economic development plan or is it to serve the county,” asked Linda Mussmann.

“It seems like you’ve already bought it and now you’re selling it to us,” said Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera. He said that that the county space utilization committee had already decided to keep the Department of Social Services in Hudson, but, “then your crew was out looking at Walmart. The Board of Supervisors is disingenuous.”“It’s worth looking at, there’s a chance to get out of the 19th century. The CRC board will not proceed unless questions are answered. This is not the same as Owkamick,” Mr. Flood said, referring to the old school, which is barely used by the county.

“This is great feedback,” said Bruce Bohnsack, chairman of the CRC and the IDA. “We are not the Board of Supervisors. We feel it was too good not to look at. We’re not going to make a decision. The Board of Supervisors will,  but it’s an option we shouldn’t let go.”

As they left the meeting, some of those who attended the meeting said that they felt that they had just listened to the presentation of a done deal.

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