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Hall plans to keep Liberty Mutual building
County officials previously indicated they couldn't afford to renovate property
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Hall County Board of  Commissioners meeting

When: 10 a.m. Thursday
Where: Georgia Mountains Center, 301 Main St., Gainesville

A plan to move county government offices out of downtown Gainesville seems to have been revived.

Instead of putting it up for sale, Hall County's Board of Commissioners is reconsidering a plan to renovate the Liberty Mutual building on Browns Bridge Road, creating a "one-stop shop" of government services.

Board members are scheduled to vote Thursday to spend $90,000 on architectural drawings for the building, a move County Administrator Randy Knighton said Monday was a "significant step" toward a potential relocation of government operations.

The move is also an about-face from six months ago when the projected high cost of renovating the building prompted commissioners to say they were going to sell it.

Now, county staff estimates the move to the building will no longer be a financial burden, and will actually save taxpayers money.

The county bought the building on Browns Bridge Road last year for $6.1 million, using a line of credit that would be repaid with revenue from the special purpose local option sales tax.

But in June, when commissioners were facing an
$11.5 million shortfall in revenue and scrutiny from their constituents, they announced an intention to sell the building, claiming there were already prospective buyers.

Shortly before the announcement, officials had learned they might have to pay between $5 million and $8.5 million to renovate the building, which was almost as much, if not $3.5 million more, than the cost of the original purchase.

Now, officials say that may not be the case.

An executive summary prepared for the commission states the renovation will cost one-third the original estimate. And Commission Chairman Tom Oliver, who in June said the county had a prospective buyer for the building, said Monday no one had offered to buy the building and selling it no longer seemed feasible.

"We looked at selling it, and the numbers were not comfortable for us," Oliver said. "...We think it's got a lot more potential than we ever realized."

Public Works Director Ken Rearden asked the commission at a work session Monday to approve the expenditure to finalize drawings for the building's renovation.

One impediment to passage might be the firm seeking the money.

The Atlanta-based Sizemore Group, which has estimated the design costs, is the same firm that projected the original cost to renovate the building, Commissioner Ashley Bell said.

"I thought they should have been fired when they came in with the $9 million (estimate for renovations)," Commissioner Billy Powell said Monday.

Bell, too, said he was skeptical about paying anymore money to the firm, which he said "presented an outrageous budget previously."

But Bell said "it may cost us more money to change horses at this point."

"My goal is just not to waste any more money on Liberty Mutual," Bell said.

Part of the design fee up for commissioners' approval includes $19,500 for "meetings and revisions" — a cost that Bell and Powell expressed displeasure about Monday.

The two commissioners are supposed to meet with the firm this week to see if that cost can be eliminated. If they can come to an agreement with Sizemore by Thursday's commission meeting, the commission will take up the issue, Bell said.


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