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Shovels turn on City Hall project

By: Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter

Mayor Terry Mann told the crowd gathered for the Whiteville City Hall groundbreaking Friday that the event was a long time coming.

“Just about a year ago,” he said, “council decided that we needed a new building. It took a lot of soul-searching. There was a lot of love for the old City Hall, and this was not a step to be taken lightly. I’m confident we did our due diligence, and it’s exciting to be here to make this next move.”

The 1938 Horace Whitley Building was originally built as a U.S. Post Office during the Great Depression. When the new post office was built on Lee Street, the city took over the classic neo-colonial structure for City Hall. The building was named in honor of Mayor Horace Whitley, who spearheaded the effort to move the city’s administrative offices into the building.

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In 2013, however, staff in the planning office began reporting mold and moisture in the downstairs office suite. The police department had already moved its evidence lockers and storage to another building due to rising moisture in the basement.

The brick building, which was built to a standard plan used across the country, was constructed with its basement below the water table. Organic materials used for caulking corners, joints and windows decomposed, allowing water to seep inside and into the walls and ceiling. In 2014, the planning and inspections offices were moved out while City Council studied ways to seal the basement. A detailed inspection turned up mold, asbestos, lead and other contaminants, even as the mold crept its way into the main office area on the first floor.

City offices were moved to a temporary location at the Hill’s Plaza in 2015. The board voted in February to demolish the old building and replace it with a larger, more energy efficient municipal office building. In December, a controlled burn took down a 1920s residence beside the City Hall. Demolition and clearing of that home, City Hall and another derelict structure were completed in January.

City officials said the city hopes to be in the new building in February 2019, roughly two years after the decision was made to build. Councilmen Tim Blackmon and Justin Smith were unable to attend Friday’s event.

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Mayor Pro Tem Sara Thompson told the crowd Friday that she hopes the city can make that schedule. Originally an ardent supporter of saving the old structure, Thompson began supporting the proposal for a new building after a tour of the mold-ridden City Hall in January 2017.

“I’m glad we’re here, and hope this can be done quickly,” Thompson said.

Councilman Robert Leder – who acted as an impromptu tour guide during the council’s inspection last year – said that while he hated to see the old building disappear, he was looking forward to the new structure. 

“This is a milestone,” Ledar said. “This is like customer service -- we have to do what is best for our customers, the 5,300 citizens of the city of Whiteville.”

“I think this will be a great, attractive addition to downtown,” said Councilman Jimmy Clarida.

Tim Collier, who was elected to the board in November, was director of the Parks and Recreation department when it had to be moved from the basement due to the pervasive mold.

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“This is just a pleasure to be a part of something new and special for our city,” he said.

 City Manager Darren Currie said the city waited until it had the unofficial approval of the Local Government Commission before scheduling the groundbreaking. The $3 million project will be paid for through a combination of loans, a tax increase, savings from other loan payoffs and cash on hand.

“It will be good to be back downtown, in the center of things,” Currie said. “We’re going to have a new, useful building that will be attractive and be here for years to come. I think our citizens will be pleased. It will be nice to have everyone under one roof, and to have a true municipal campus with the police and fire department nearby.”

Tim Oakley, the lead architect on the project, said his firm is looking forward to getting underway. As the council and staff took up the ceremonial shovels, Oakley smiled and said, “Now we start the hard part.”

Stuart Rogers