Gimme that building

THERE IT SITS, like a present left under the tree that nobody wants to open because no matter how nicely it’s wrapped and how big the bow, it still smells like trouble. It’s the stocking stuffer every kid dreams of: an abandoned Walmart store.

The current asking price for the 125,000-square-foot building on Route 9 in Greenport is reportedly $2.7 million, marked down half-a-million dollars since it first went on the market when Walmart moved up the highway over a year ago. And that’s the price before the holidays, so think what a deal we could get during the big, post-Christmas, vacant building sales.

In theory the county Capital Resource Corporation would engineer the purchase and the county would use some of the vast space for a long list of agencies now in various aging buildings around the City of Hudson. Some of these same agencies were supposed to move to the old Ockawamick School building in Claverack, which the county purchased a couple of years ago for about what the new building might cost.

I assume that I’m not the first person to suggest that the county trade the Ockawamick campus for the Walmart site, because while the empty Walmart sits next to a Price Chopper supermarket, the only commercial neighbor of the former school is a golf course. Maybe supporters of the Ockawamick School plan worry they’ll miss out on the opportunity to squeeze in a round of golf while they make regular inspections of the old school. But they should relax. The empty Walmart has so much space that county government can build an indoor golf course in the former box store and still have room for all those county agencies.

Perhaps the county actually plans to use the whole space at the old Walmart. After all, why should politicians here heed calls for smaller government. Maybe the slogan of county leaders should be: “We’ve got the space, now let’s hire the people to fill it!”

Won’t we need extra people to serve the needs of the county population in the future? Hmm. The latest census estimates show the number of people living here has… shrunk. Uh oh. Turns out the headcount has dropped by about 2% over the last decade. If the new census data follow the estimates, Columbia County will have lost population even as the state overall has grown by about 2% in the same period.

Well, at least you can say that county officials engaged in these projects show remarkable consistency. They’ve never met a shaky real estate deal they didn’t like.

Buying old buildings and reusing them for necessary government operations can make sense and has worked in the past. This county put old schools to good use. Consider 401 State Street, the headquarters of the Board of Supervisors. But sometimes, as with the former school in Hudson that once housed the Department of Health, it no longer makes sense to patch over problems that have become too costly to repair.

In neighboring Ulster County more than a decade ago, county government did exactly what is proposed here; it purchased vacant commercial buildings and remodeled them as the headquarters not only for the social services department but, at least initially, for a so-called “business incubator” and other purposes.

That happened in a much different era, and who knows whether the same approach would actually work now given the financial strains that government and taxpayers face today. But this county will never resolve that question if leaders continue their policy of trying to sell the public on the notion that owning new real estate is good public policy just because the previous tenant has moved out.

Before the purchase of the Ockawamick School, a county committee did produce a factually sound study of the options for relocating county services. Factually sound, yes, but politically tone-deaf. The Walmart project sounds eerily similar. The county should put this one on ice before we end up with a second empty space we can’t afford to use.

Resolving county space requirements doesn’t start with a vacant building. It starts with the ideas of the people — consider taxpayers among this group — identifying problems and proposing solutions. And if this causes the county to miss an opportunity to grab an empty building, do you know what that means? It means some private, taxpaying business plans to use the space. Imagine that. 

 

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