As acquisition of property nears, the town budgets $100,000 for site work and assessment

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For three years, the future of Montreat's town hall has been clouded by the charged political discussion about its appropriate location.

But the air has started to clear in recent weeks during town council meetings to discuss the town's 2017-18 budget. When the board meets on Tuesday, June 20 for its scheduled budget workshop, the project may finally begin moving forward.

The town's new town administrator, Alex Carmichael, has asked each commissioner to prioritize the duties they want of him in his first year.

“Almost unanimously (the lists) included the priority of relationship building,” he said.

In his first few months on the job, Carmichael has tried to strengthen bonds between the town and nearby entities such as the Montreat Retreat Association, Montreat College and Montreat Cottagers Association. He’s also spent “a lot of time with each council member,” he said.

“I think, between myself and the council members, we’ve developed really frank and efficient relationships,” he said. “That allows us to get to the heart of the matter whenever we get together.”

The town's government and administration have undergone significant changes in the past two years. In 2015, former town council member Tim Helms became mayor. Bill Gilliland and Kitty Fouche were elected to vacant seats, and Kent Otto was appointed to fill the seat Helms vacated.

Former town administrator Ron Nalley left in July to become Lake Lure's town manager. Al Richardson served as interim town manager for eight months. Carmichael replaced Richardson.

“Having someone in the role in a permanent position leads to the sense of ‘OK, now we can move forward and plan a stable trajectory,’” Carmichael said.

In March the board authorized Carmichael and Helms to negotiate the acquisition of 0.83 acres just outside of the Montreat gate from the Mountain Retreat Association for the town hall. A mayor-appointed town hall task force recommended the location in January. Previously, a lawsuit initiated by a handful of Montreat residents prevented the town from building the town hall on Florida Terrace, the site a previous town board chose for it.

Negotiations for the “creekside property” (named for its proximity to Flat Creek) are still going on. But at a budget workshop June 8, Carmichael told town commissioners that Montreat and the Mountain Retreat Association have “agreed on all principles and are ready to move forward.” He added that he hoped to have a final contract ready for review by the board soon.

Money to buy the property is available in the 2016-17 budget.

During the board’s annual retreat in April, Carmichael asked the board to consider setting broad goals in an effort to “map out what we know we’ll need in the next five years.”

Predictably, the town hall figured prominently into the list of the board’s priorities. With a complicated history behind the project, Carmichael is looking to the future.

“If we had been starting a town hall project without going through this conversation from the last few years, we would probably be approaching it differently,” he said. “The direction I’ve been informally, but pretty clearly, given is that we’re scaling back, building it outside the gate and starting with a rough dollar amount. Which is in juxtaposition of the way it was originally done, which was with a space needs assessment.”

Carmichael’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year allocates $100,000 of $1 million he estimates the site work and construction will cost. The total project cost estimate, with the addition of loan interest, is about $1.3 million.

“In the coming year, beginning July 1, our focus will be on assessing the property and determining what we can do with (the Rainbow Terrace) property in terms of building a town hall,” Carmichael said. “We’ll begin doing geothermal studies of the property, look at the floodplains and setbacks and get architectural engineering firms to look at designing a building. There won’t be groundbreaking in the next year on that property.”

At their June 8 meeting, commissioners board did not recommend changes to the proposed budget, which could mean construction could begin during the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“We’re working with a rough number,” Carmichael said. “If the council votes to approve the budget I’ve submitted, then we’re looking at entering into debt for that last $900,000.”

The proposed 2017-18 budget also allocates $300,000 for a new public works facility, a project that has received unanimous support from the council.

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