County: Leaving city could pay dividends

Posted: May 7, 2013

The Winchester Star

County Administrator John R. Riley Jr.
Supervisors Chairman Richard Shickle

WINCHESTER — Frederick County officials believe the locality could reap economic benefits if its government offices are moved out of the city.

It came close to moving in the mid-1990s, before an agreement with the city kept the offices downtown and allowed for the expanded 100,000-square-foot facility now located at 107 N. Kent St.

Frederick Administrator John R. Riley Jr. said the city received at least some economic boost from the presence of county employees — now about 200 strong. And he believes Frederick could see the same boost from having the offices within its borders.

“It’s very early to try and speculate [what could happen with the offices], but [one] of the things we could hope to realize would be stimulated or increased economic activity in the area [where] we may relocate to,” Riley said last Tuesday.

Riley said Frederick’s presence in the city’s downtown likely played a role in the transformation of an old knitting mill into the OakCrest Properties headquarters across Kent Street from the county’s administration building; the George Washington Hotel renovation; the opening of Piccadilly’s Public House and Restaurant and keeping Farmers & Merchants Bank, now BB&T, in town.

F&M Bank gave the county the land for its expanded administration building and received additional downtown properties in return.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Shickle also said that moving the offices might boost growth in the county.

“It could lead to economic development as a hub for certain activities [like county government],” he said. “It could bring new people into an area.”

He added that he doesn’t think Winchester and the surrounding area would suffer from the move.

“I would think it would be a nonissue issue,” he said. “I’m not in tune to the workings of the city or the running of the city, but I wouldn’t think [it would be a detriment]. I would think it has the potential to be a great opportunity for the city.”

Some observers, in fact, have speculated that the city could reap about $250,000 in additional revenue from property taxes and parking fees annually if Frederick’s administrative offices move to the county.

Frederick County Planning Director Eric Lawrence said Tuesday that there are multiple locations in the county that could support a new office building.

“Anywhere we’ve designated for commercial use is probably approved for an office building,” he said.

Land designated for commercial or mixed-use development typically has access to utilities and amenities that would suit an office building.

Lawrence added that putting county offices near a concentrated population likely would be the best course of action if a move occurs.

“I think that’s the most important thing,” he said. “If you want to provide services you find where the core population is.”

About 50 percent of county residents live in urban development areas, which are typically east of Interstate 81, according to Lawrence.

It also would make sense to have any new development — like a county office building — located close to major transportation routes like I-81, U.S. 522, U.S. 50, U.S. 11 or Va. 37, Lawrence said.

The county’s current zoning and land-use maps show that most of the property zoned for commercial uses is located both along I-81 and east of the interstate.

Having offices located closer to significant transportation infrastructure and on their own land could benefit both citizens and county employees. Citizens with business at the county office likely wouldn’t have to find and pay for parking downtown, and employees might have shorter commutes depending on where any new office is located.

Shickle thinks the location would be important to consider before any decisions are made.

“In perception and in reality, citizens would find a location in the county strategically located more accessible to them,” he said.

The vast majority of independent cities — like Winchester — in the U.S. are located in Virginia, with 39 out of the country’s 42 in the commonwealth. In Virginia, 14 counties have their seats in independent cities.

Some examples of the arrangement include Staunton, the Augusta County seat; Harrisonburg, the Rockingham County seat; and Lexington, the Rockbridge County seat.

Shickle said it’s always worth looking at for a political jurisdiction to think about having its offices in its own jurisdiction.

Dean Lynch, deputy executive director of the Richmond-based Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), said Wednesday that he’s unsure what impact it might have for a county to have its offices located on its own land as opposed to in an independent city.

“We haven’t done any research as to the advantages or disadvantages,” he said. “It would be interesting to look at.”

He said one possible benefit would be that the county might have more of an identity.

“If it’s county government then you’re operating in the county, and not really dealing with the independent city’s issues,” he said.

Officials received an unsolicited proposal from Frederick County Center LLC in mid-April to provide cost-free land outside the city to house a 150,000-square-foot office building.

The proposal also states that the LLC would provide financing for the design and construction of the new building, in addition to purchasing the current facility in the city.

Frederick County Center LLC was registered with Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) on March 20.

Local attorney Thomas Moore “Ty” Lawson, who has declined to discuss the details of the proposal, is the LLC’s registered agent and the only name associated with the corporation, according to the SCC.

Information such as the location of any donated land, the cost of the new building and the amount the LLC is offering to pay for the current property is considered proprietary and will not be released at this time, Riley said on April 24.

The only action on the matter taken by the county Board of Supervisors to date has been to adopt a resolution to accept similar offers to the unsolicited one through June 25.

The earlier agreement to keep the county offices in the city was reached in 1994.

Frederick County’s Industrial Development Authority issued $7.515 million in lease revenue bonds to finance the acquisition of property, and for the construction and equipping of a government complex and related facilities to house its administrative offices, according to information provided via email Friday by Deputy County Administrator Jay Tibbs.

A second lease revenue bond was issued — for $6.425 million — in 2001 to pay the outstanding principal, premium and accrued interest on a portion of the 1994 bonds and finance certain project additions and renovations, Tibbs added.

Frederick County still owes $1.3 million on its current administration building. It is scheduled to make a $705,000 payment in December and pay off the remaining balance in December 2014, according to Frederick County Finance Director Cheryl Shiffler.

The county does not have money set aside for a new building at this point, Shiffler said.

According to data for 2012 released by the Weldon Cooper Center, Winchester’s population is estimated at 27,208. Frederick County’s population is listed as 80,118.

The center projects that the county population will reach 119,419 — an increase of 49 percent — by 2030. Winchester is projected to grow to 29,449 — an increase of 8.2 percent — during the same period.

Frederick County has 416 square miles; Winchester covers 9.3 square miles.

Future staffing needs resulting from population growth and the subsequent cost to the county would be determined later if Frederick gets to a comprehensive design stage for a new office building, Riley previously said.

“I think you’d be looking at what are your service demands for the increased population that you’d be serving,” he said.

“You need to increase your accessibility to the public that’s doing business with you.”

— Contact Matt Armstrong at marmstrong@winchesterstar.com