Over five years after voters locally and statewide approved a $2 billion bond package, plans for the portion included for building a new N.C. Army National Guard facility in Wilkes County remain uncertain.
The Connect NC Bond Act of 2015, which passed in March 2016, called for using $70 million of the bond funds to build National Guard regional readiness centers in Wilkes, Burke and Guilford counties. These were identified as training facilities for multiple Guard units with hundreds of Guardsmen.
Construction is underway on a 66,000-square-foot readiness center where a facility for youthful offenders once stood in Morganton (Burke County). It’s about to start on an 85,000-square-foot readiness center on a state prison site in McLeansville (Guilford County). Completion of the Burke facility is expected in July 2022 at a cost of $23 million, while the Guilford facility is expected to be ready in June 2024 at a cost of $47 million.
The North Wilkesboro commissioners approved giving 119 acres of the town’s industrial park on River Road-Liberty Grove Road to the state as the site of the readiness center in Wilkes in October 2018.
Almost from the beginning, state officials didn’t mention the readiness center proposed in North Wilkesboro as prominently as the other two. The original schedule had the Wilkes facility under construction by now at a cost $10.5 million, but a March 2021 report to a House Appropriations Committee said it was still in the design stage with an undecided completion date.
The deed conveying the 119 acres said the state agreed to accept it for a readiness center, but that ownership of the land automatically reverted back to the town if the Guard determined it wasn’t needed for military purposes. It was valued at $327,140 when deeded.
North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said earlier this month that Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro told him the Guard planned to spend $6 to $10 million of Connect NC funds on renovating the current 12,500-square-foot National Guard Armory on 3.90 acres on Armory Road, North Wilkesboro, instead of building a regional readiness center on the 119 acres.
Emails from Elmore’s office to Hooper and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson indicate that Elmore shared this with them in April or May.
Despite the information from Elmore, Lt. Col. Matt Handley, director of public affairs for the N.C. National Guard, told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot last week that a final decision on the Guard’s plans in Wilkes hadn’t been reached as all options are reviewed. He said “renovating, remodeling and expanding (the facility on Armory Road) is one of the options that is under review.”
Handley also stated, “The North Wilkesboro project right now is in the advanced planning stage. We are weighing options and working with city, county and state leadership in order to get the best use out of tax payers’ dollars through the NC Connect Bond referendum.”
He continued, “No final decision has been made at this time, but the most important aspect is having a facility that will meet the current and future needs of the N.C. Army National Guard and with that we are confident it will bring benefit to the community in North Wilkesboro and meet the intent of the voters that approved the NC Connect Bond.”
Elmore said in an interview that high costs of grading and other site work on the 119 acres related to its steep terrain influenced the Guard’s decision to propose renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of building on the 119 acres.
Hooper agreed about major grading needed on the 119 acres but said there apparently was a belief earlier that costs could be cut by having the North Wilkesboro-based 875th Engineering Co. help with grading. The unit specializes in excavation with heavy equipment. He said this apparently wasn’t documented.
Hooper said he and Johnson discussed the matter and decided it was best to support renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of insisting on building on the 119 acres. He said this was discussed with commissioners individually and they concurred. Hooper mentioned it briefly in a North Wilkesboro board meeting in early June.
“Our rationale was that we wanted to choose the option that was more likely to get done and that was the renovation option,” said Hooper.
“Jeffrey (Elmore) said that if we decided we wanted to stick with the industrial park property, it would stay on the books as a possibility, but getting the approval needed for it to occur was unlikely, particularly since the estimate for the building (on the 119 acres) was far more than $6 million.”
Hooper said he, Johnson and Elmore decided on a letter stating support for renovating the facility on Armory Road on April 26 and Hooper later emailed a copy to Elmore with a note asking who it should be sent to in the Guard.
Hooper said he mailed it to Col. Brian Pierce, a Guard government affairs official, on May 26 after hearing from the commissioners. Hooper said he hasn’t received a response yet.
The letter expressed gratitude for the Guard’s presence here and noted its importance. It also said renovating the existing armory, built in 1955, would support the Guard’s mission and enhance its ability to serve the people of western North Carolina.
“Locally, a renovated facility will help beautify Statesville Rd. and serve as a landmark for travelers of that corridor. The renovation will also employ area residents and give a boost to ancillary businesses in the area,” the letter stated.
Hooper said he assumed the legislature would somehow memorialize the shift from building a regional facility on the 119 acres to renovating the existing armory and that there would be documentation for the town to approve. He said town would seek the return of the 119 acres.
“I’m happy that they’re staying, because other towns are losing” their Guard facilities as Guard units are consolidated into regional readiness centers. For example, the Guard facility in Boone will close when the unit based there is moved to the readiness center in Morganton.
Hooper said North Wilkesboro officials have talked about using the 119 acres for housing or recreational purposes such as motocross racing if it isn’t used by the Guard.
A road enters the property from the north and another road from the south but they don’t connect due to a steep ravine.
Local officials say Wilkes Economic Development Director LeeAnn Nixon regularly tried to learn about the status of the readiness center from the Guard since 2018, largely due to the proposed readiness center’s potential for encouraging development of other portions of the town industrial park.
Nixon said he never learned much and she credited Elmore with gaining information from the Guard for town officials this spring. In 2015, Elmore and then-Sen. Shirley Randleman helped get Wilkes included as a site for a readiness center funded by Connect NC bond funds.
Mark Bondo, principal budget analyst/budget execution in the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management, cited language in the Connect NC Bond Act that he said allows the Guard to either build a new facility or renovate the existing armory in North Wilkesboro.
It says, “The proceeds of public improvement bonds and notes, including premium thereon, if any, for National Guard, as provided in subdivision (1) of this subsection, shall be used by the Adjutant General of the North Carolina National Guard for capital improvements, as defined in G.S. 143C-1-1(d)(5), for readiness centers located in Guilford, Burke and Wilkes counties.”
Bondo said G.S. 143C-1-1(d)(5) has the definition of capital improvements, saying it includes “real property acquisition, new construction or rehabilitation of existing facilities, and repairs and renovations over one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) in value.”
He stated, “Thus, under the Connect NC Bond Act and the State Budget Act (143C) the Guard can construct a new facility or repair, renovate, and expand the existing armory to meet the needs of a regional readiness center.”
Bondo said the Connect NC Bond Act doesn’t give the Guard the option of canceling the Wilkes project or delaying it indefinitely. Total funding designated for the Wilkes project now is $12.86 million, he said, adding that it received a supplement in general fund money in 2018.