Originally created 12/02/05

County seeks central home



AIKEN - After years of being crammed into every cranny of the old Aiken Hospital building and spread out over leased spaces across the city, county officials next month will begin the search for design and construction professionals to help them create a custom-designed, unified home.

County Administrator Clay Killian said he expects to issue a request for proposals in the middle of this month for the project that is intended to improve cost efficiency and customer service.

The plan would bring all departments to a central location where residents could complete all county business in one fell swoop. Mr. Killian says that could mean creating a campus of several buildings to house administration and service offices, judicial facilities, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, and the sheriff's office.

The consolidation would free the county from many of the lease arrangements it has had to make to provide space for DHEC, the solicitor, the planning department and others. It costs about $200,000 annually to lease about 70,000 square feet of office space at Kalmia Mall and other locations, the county administrator said.

"If we're going to spend $200,000 on rent, we could (better) put that $200,000 a year to debt service," Mr. Killian said.

Officials don't know what the cost of the new facility could be. A preliminary estimate of $22 million focused on replacing the two-building complex on Richland Avenue. It assumed a new 160,000-square-foot, multistory building would be built on about six acres of land.

Based on that estimate, the council last year included a $12 million allocation on the 1 cent capital projects sales tax referendum "for the construction of a new County Office Complex." Voters approved an extension of the tax in November 2004.

Since that first look, though, the project's scope has expanded to the campus vision, and the cost has increased. With only about half the funds needed for construction, and those not likely to be available for at least five years, officials are seeking a nontraditional arrangement with a developer in hopes of completing the project before it is jeopardized by inflation.

Instead of paying the entire cost for a contractor to build on county-owned land, officials hope to find developers interested in providing an appropriate parcel of land on which they will construct a building to the county's specifications, then commit to a lease/purchase agreement with the county.

"If we waited until that money came in, then that would be five to six years down the road, and construction prices would be going up all the time," Mr. Killian said.

He said the bidders will have to provide at least 10 acres within a three-mile radius of the current county complex or the Judicial Center on Chesterfield and York streets. The county will seek proposals for space design, architectural design and construction but won't necessarily lock into an agreement with one bidder on all three services.

Reach J.C. Lexow at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or jc.lexow@augustachronicle.com.