County debates buying former Winn-Dixie store to ease crowding

Jay Lieberman, left, of CPS Treatment and administrative specialist Kelly Shannon work together in a small office at the York DSS building. York County has been wrestling with its capital needs for years, including solutions to overcrowded offices.
Jay Lieberman, left, of CPS Treatment and administrative specialist Kelly Shannon work together in a small office at the York DSS building. York County has been wrestling with its capital needs for years, including solutions to overcrowded offices.

Let's play "Everyone's an Engineer" and help York County figure out where to put all its employees, a years-long struggle that's come up again now that it's budget time.

Should the county:

a) Buy the former Winn-Dixie on Heckle Boulevard and turn it into office space for about $3.5 million?

b) Build a new library downtown where Good Kia currently sits, and pay for it with money from the county, the City of Rock Hill and the Rock Hill School District? or

c) Do what it's been doing for the past eight years, i.e., very little except a few stopgap measures and throwing up a bond package that voters shot down?

There won't be answers at the bottom of this story, so don't look for them.

The York County Council has been wrestling with its capital needs for years. The debate fired up again when staff last week presented a possible solution for helping overcrowding at local Department of Social Service Offices -- one that would prioritize space for the DSS and put off a new downtown Rock Hill library until later than 2012.

The councilmen did not stand up and cheer at the suggestion.

The problems:

DSS director Yvonne Stewart described the overcrowded conditions at DSS offices, with staff crammed in basements and closets, and clients overflowing into the street.

Local DSS offices added 23 positions last fall and expect to add 15 more this year, in the wake of an audit that found problems with the agency's response times and policy violations.

"We've just reached the limit on space," Stewart said. "The Winn-Dixie building is about the perfect size," she said.

DSS is crowded, but so is just about every other county building. The county jail and prisons need more beds, the courthouse in York needs renovations, new libraries are needed, and the county needs more space just about everywhere, officials say.

The state makes the county house DSS employees and pays for some of the cost.

The Winn-Dixie solution

The county could buy the 40,000-square-foot former Winn-Dixie building near where Heckle Boulevard and Cherry Road intersect, convert it to offices and put all the DSS employees from Rock Hill and York there, said interim York County Manager David Larson and architect Glenn Ware.

That would mean delaying construction of a new library in downtown Rock Hill until 2012 or later. Larson said voters had resoundingly rejected the county's plan to borrow $75 million for its capital needs, and Larson said the county shouldn't hold another referendum until 2012 or later.

The library could be part of that question put to voters, he said.

'Life-changing event for a city'

There's only so much money for capital projects each year. Past councils haven't set aside money for projects, or made much headway with the county's building needs. Still, the possibility of buying the old Winn-Dixie renewed tension over which projects would get priority.

Councilman Rick Lee said buying the Winn-Dixie would be a mistake.

"This DSS request came from outer space," Lee said. "We hadn't heard anything about this in six years, now all of a sudden they're coming to the front of the line. We continue to neglect county employees in favor of other interest groups."

Lee's plan goes like this: DSS stays put, the county leases some temporary space somewhere for them. The county buys the lot where Good Kia sits now, right off Dave Lyle Boulevard and next to downtown Rock Hill.

That's where the new library should be built, he said. Rock Hill and the school district could share in the cost, and the library could also serve a new high school to be located in center-city Rock Hill.

"This is doable; we can get this done," Lee said, calling a downtown school "a life-changing event for a city."

Lee said the school district hasn't decided where to put its next high school, but he wants to make it desirable to build it downtown. So he doesn't want to put off the library another 10 years, he said.

"I don't want us to be already committed to a path that doesn't allow us to provide the library as an incentive to get them to locate down there," he said.

'Bite the bullet and do it'

The councilmen listened to Lee's plan. Some liked the Winn-Dixie plan better and said buying the building would be a good investment.

"They're not making any more property, and it's on a busy road," said Councilman Joe Cox.

Others said it might be hard to get the city, school district and county together on costs, use of the library and other concerns. The three groups took years to reach an agreement on taxes in Rock Hill's Textile Corridor.

But all the councilmen agreed on one thing: The county's got to take action soon.

"If we're this far behind in all our needs, we better do something before we become a second-class county," said Councilman Curwood Chappell. "We don't want to go back to the horse-and-buggy days, I was born there ... We're just gonna have to bite the bullet and do it."

Now and then

What the county needs and is going to pay for now:

• Security upgrades at Moss Justice Center: $2.6 million

• 256-bed prison replacement: $10 million

• Renovations to the historic York County courthouse: $1.2 million

• New communications building: $2.4 million

• Expand family court in Rock Hill: $721,810

• Land for Rock Hill library: $1.8 million

• Renovations to Hightower Hall: $1 million

What comes next year:

• 200 more parking spaces at Moss Justice Center: $800,000

• 128-bed jail housing expansion: $12 million

• Renovations to Heckle office complex: $1 million

• New recycling center: $4.7 million

• Renovations to McCelvey Center: $3 million