Special ‘Campus’

Published 5:21 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

WINDSOR – At seven other sites across the state they are known as “teacher’s campuses”.

In reality, it’s a housing initiative aimed at attracting and retaining teachers for Bertie County schools.

The State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU) Foundation is joining with local leaders, private contractors, landowners, and educators in Windsor and Bertie County in the construction of a 24-unit apartment complex. In the other seven sites – from Dare County to Asheville; and including 13-year old Hertford Village in Ahoskie – the units are teacher-exclusive. They are built with a 15- year interest-free loan of up to $2.8 million for the apartments, offering area teachers an affordable place to call home.

Each unit features two bedrooms, and two bathrooms. The living space of each unit is approximately 1,050 square feet with a kitchen including a refrigerator, oven, and dishwasher.

The complex also features a small pavilion and charcoal grills for small gatherings.

Rent each month is deducted via the renters SECU accounts (tenants must be SECU members). The rent amount is around $625 per month which includes utilities and maintenance. Bertie County’s units would rent for $650 monthly.

Bertie also wants to add a new twist to the project: the living quarters – while having teachers as the primary tenants – would also be residences for law enforcement personnel, EMT’s, prison and hospital workers depending on vacancies and availability.

Wednesday night at the Windsor Community Building, Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson led a presentation before an audience of about 50 in a public forum on information. Topics covered included guidelines, financing arrangements, a MidEast Commission’s teacher’s survey, and the three proposed sites where the complex might be located.

Citing concerns about the need for quality teacher housing raised by Bertie County Schools officials four years ago, Wesson said of 17 new BCS hires in 2014-15, only two found housing within the county.

Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson (above) and Windsor Mayor Jim Hoggard (below) joined in the discussion at the forum on building a “teacher’s campus”. So far, no application has been made, nor site for a facility selected. Photos by Gene Motley

“In response to those concerns we reached out to Hertford County and they told me about (Hertford Village), and how it’s been fully occupied with a waiting list,” Wesson said. “We’re fortunate they (SECUF) are interested in us because they know something about the lack of housing for teachers, and they’re happy to consider us once we’ve made an application.”

Wesson did say no application by the county has yet been made. He said first there must be a site selection, a design, and a plan for development.

“No upfront costs are required,” he noted. “The first payment on this (15-year) note is not due until the development is up and running and occupied. In three of the seven projects done they’ve deferred payments on the first year to allow the non-profit corporation to build their finances in order to be able to deal with the operation of the facility.”

He said the ownership must only be done by a non-profit corporation, not the county, the town of Windsor, or BCS. He proposed the long-standing Windsor Township Development Corporation (WTDC).

“They have the authority to hold assets, to make investments, they own several buildings, and they are extremely well-financed,” he pointed out. “Their assets exceed $250,000 and they have over $90,000 in cash; no indebtedness whatsoever.”

Wesson said if granted the financing the WTDC is willing to accept ownership of the facility.

“They see it as a great opportunity for the county and the town, and they want to incur that,” Wesson said.

Management of the complex he said would be coordinated between the town of Windsor and the WTDC under a contract agreement.

“There would not be any cost incurred,” he stated, “because they would be doing it as a project. The ground care, the lawn care, is all contracted out, so there’s very little ‘day-to-day’ management. None of the other six facilities (one is still under construction) have ever had any vacancies; they are always full.”

Wesson said discussions with the SECU Foundation are still ongoing and that public input is needed, primarily in determining a site.

Of the three proposed sites, the town of Windsor owns one on South King Street (old US 17 N) and Harrell Heights Lane, approximately six acres. Two other sites are owned by Bertie County: 14 acres behind the new Social Services complex off Jasper Bazemore Ave; and five acres around the old Social Services at Charles and Barringer Streets, off Sterlingworth Street.

“None are in the flood plain, all are on high ground,” Wesson explained. “They wouldn’t even consider it if it were being done in a flood area.”

The estimated cost, he maintained, would be about $2.4-2.8 million. One builder, Freddie Mills of Mills Construction in Raleigh, has built the other seven units.

“Wherever this goes it’s going to be an asset,” Wesson surmised. “You’re going to have teachers, law enforcement, paramedics, and maybe nurses from the hospital, and it would be an enhancement to the area.”

The MidEast Commission survey of 133 BCS faculty revealed that housing availability is important to them; that there is a lack of available housing; that there was not enough rental housing in Bertie County; that Bertie housing rates are not comparable with surrounding counties; that apartments are definitely needed in Bertie County; and that if apartments were available teachers would be interested in living there.

Wesson concluded that Bertie County – if approved – would be allowed to choose its own contractor and would not have to use Mills Construction.

BCS Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill offered that 80 percent of the district’s hires are females who desire somewhere safe to live.

“They need a place to start their life in Bertie County,” Hill insists. “Things are primarily done by word-of-mouth, and we really need to make them welcome.”

Dr. Teresa Anderson, new principal at Bertie High School, and who moved to the county from the Midwest, related her challenge in finding housing. She says after a near three-week search, she found space across the Roanoke River in Williamston.

“I spent four weeks in a hotel, but if I’d found a place here – and I did ask and I was given a list, but it’s difficult when you don’t know the lay of the land; but the positive of this is it is about word-of-mouth, but having this opportunity would certainly make it a lot easier,” said Anderson. “I hope you will support this because teachers want to be here and want to be part of the community.”

“It’s a serious recruitment tool,” said Hill. “It’s difficult enough trying to find qualified people. East Carolina graduated 11 secondary school Math teachers this year, and I have to compete with the whole United States for just one of them, so we need this; it’s a kind of cause that could become a win-win for everybody.”

Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer broached the idea of any private citizen who would like to become involved by donating property, or be part of the process as a public-private partnership, then that is available. He also spoke about amenities at the county-owned sites.

Windsor Town Manager Allen Castelloe offered that the town-owned site was an area that could potentially be used, if considered.

Wesson said the county considered requesting a 36-unit complex because he felt there was a demand for greater than 24, but was told the SECU Foundation had only done the current number.

“They said we should start there, and if it pans out and you have other sites you might want to do something with then perhaps something might be available,” he remarked.

“If the first works at 24, maybe down the line when this is paid off we could look at one of the other sites. All of the sites can work.”

Wesson then proposed a timeline and said if the project is applied for and approved, they would like to begin construction by December 2018 for opening in May 2019.

“May is the key because it aids with recruitment of new teachers and helps with existing ones. Think of what this means to the town of Windsor with new revenue, (utilities), taxes, and also for the county,” he said.

Finally, he reiterated that the SECU Foundation demands a firm management plan.

“We see that it would be the town’s and county’s responsibility to manage whomever we hire to do it under contract and do it to our satisfaction. This is an asset, but it’s also our oversight,” Wesson noted.

Former BCS teacher and ex-school board member Pam Chamblee said since taking a position with Hertford County Schools, she now lives in Hertford Village.

“They have very strict rules about garbage, pets, and the like,” she noted. “I think if (Bertie County) sets things up similarly, I don’t believe you will have problems.”

Wesson also said if built in any of the three proposed areas, they would have to be re-zoned for multi-family use, as none of them currently are.