Debate heats up as leaders near decision on operations center

The city of Rock Hill's Operations Center is too small for the city's needs. A new facility is being planned.
The city of Rock Hill's Operations Center is too small for the city's needs. A new facility is being planned.

Two months ago, as Rock Hill leaders debated joining a nationwide initiative to confront climate change, colleagues asked Mayor Doug Echols a question: What exactly does signing the agreement commit the city to doing?

Echols was quick with an answer.

"I think it sends a signal that we as a city are going to do everything we can," he said shortly before a 4-2 vote authorizing his signature.

Eight weeks later, the city is nearing decision time on a planned $18 million operations center, and local conservationists say Echols' words are about to face their first big test.

The mayor and other city officials haven't decided whether the facility will be designed to meet the environmentally friendly "green building" standard, saying they're unsure how much extra money it would cost.

Their decision will offer an early glimpse into how far the city is willing to go in living up to the voluntary steps laid out in the initiative, known as the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

"Why not seize this opportunity to serve as a model to the rest of the community, a model for any other kind of building that's going to go on?" asked Joe Zdenek, chairman of Henry's Knob, a local conservation group affiliated with the S.C. Sierra Club. "That would be a good example to set, to show how serious the city is."

Plans call for green features

Echols said Tuesday he wants to see cost estimates first.

"It's hard for me to say we absolutely ought to do everything" that a green-certified building would require, he said. "But that's a standard we ought to look at in relationship to the total cost. If we don't reach 100 percent efficiency, we'll be somewhere maybe close to that, versus just going ahead and building a standard building."

City Manager Carey Smith told The Herald last week his staff currently has no plans to pursue a green rating, though the City Council's orders would change that.

Item No. 7 on the agreement Echols signed calls for cities to "practice and promote" green-building programs.

Even if it doesn't earn the designation, Smith says the center will include a number of energy-saving features. Design work hasn't started, but tentative plans or goals call for:

• Big windows that allow natural light to stream in, reducing demand for artificial light.

• Heat generated from beneath the floor, eliminating the need for less-efficient overhead blowers.

• The use of solar panels to generate some power, further cutting electricity demand.

But going far enough to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's standards involves a "rigorous and usually more expensive process," Smith said.

To do it, buildings must score a certain number of points, which are earned through steps such as buying materials from local vendors, recycling debris generated at the site and using outside air for cooling when possible.

Winthrop: Pays for itself

At Winthrop University, the new Lois Rhame West Center became one of the first buildings in York County to get the green rating, known officially as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

That process added about four months, as well as an increase of 2 percent in design costs and another 2 percent to 4 percent in construction costs to the $27 million project, said Walter Hardin, the school's associate vice president for facilities management.

"However, usually the things you do will more than pay for that in 10 years," Hardin said Tuesday. "The savings that the green features create pay for themselves. It's going to become the norm rather than exception, and I'd say that will be in the next few years."

Center has hit delays

Smith's reluctance centers on time pressures and rising construction costs.

The operations center already is behind schedule because of delays in finding a suitable site. A list of 15 possibilities has been whittled to a handful of finalists in industrial areas, and negotiations to buy land are in the final stages.

The city hopes to get a land deal in place by this month or January, allowing construction to start by late summer or fall. The facility would open a year later.

"Right now, it bothers me that we've had delays," Smith said. "Anything else that would delay getting started, in essence, costs the city money. Time right now is working against us. We need to get this decision made."

Focusing solely on short-term costs and deadlines is the wrong approach, said Frank Traficante, another member of the Henry's Knob group.

"Environmental leadership is something that will make Rock Hill more competitive in the future," he said. "It will have a positive impact on the city's image."

Smith argues the city has shown leadership, from adding more hybrid vehicles to installing energy-efficient light bulbs in City Hall. The agreement, he stresses, does not dictate a binding set of rules. Rather, it offers a voluntary menu of options.

"We didn't sign a contract," he said last week, adding that he views the initiative as "a general commitment to look at these things in an encouraging way."

Meanwhile, Echols' message on climate change has taken on a more urgent tone in recent months.

"This is an issue we must address at this time," he said in an interview last month. "It's not one we can turn our back on."

What is the agreement?

• Launched in 2005 as a way to encourage cities to confront global warming locally, without help from Washington, D.C.

• Voluntary guidelines call for encouraging trails and greenways, adding more energy-efficient vehicles and promoting green building practices, among other steps.

• Rock Hill became the fifth South Carolina city to sign on, joining Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Sumter.

What is an operations center?

The city has outgrown its current 6-acre facility next to Winthrop University.

The new center on 30 to 40 acres will house offices for the Utilities Department, a staging area for construction equipment, fuel stations for the city fleet and maintenance garages.