Stearns Bank in Walker County

Several major additions will be made to the county’s portfolio of properties early in 2015, according to Walker County sole commissioner Bebe Heiskell.

The Cedar Grove community will gain a brand new community center, and the tax commissioner’s, the assessor’s, planning and zoning, surveyor’s and the department of environmental health offices all will relocate from LaFayette to Rock Spring.

Earlier this year, plans to replace the Cedar Grove Fire Station were scrapped when higher-than-expected bids were submitted for construction of a new building that would serve both as a fire station and community center.

“Those bids were for about $1.8 million,” commissioner Heiskell said.

Rather than build a structure like that at Mineral Springs, it was decided to renovate the fire hall and build a freestanding community center.

This week, during her business meeting, the commissioner seemed pleased that a dozen companies submitted bids for construction of the community center.

She was delighted when the bids were opened and found to range from a low bid of slightly less than $900,000 to the highest bid of $1.5 million.

All those bidding on the project projected a six- to nine-month timeframe for its construction.

A contract for this SPLOST-funded project will be awarded after review of the submitted bids and bidders is complete.

The community center might not be move-in ready until about this time next year, but that is not the case for the former Stearns Bank building at the corner of U.S. Highway 27 and Ga. Highway 95 in Rock Spring.

There must be a public hearing before any deal can be finalized, but the county and bank have reached a tentative lease-purchase agreement in which the county will pay about $4 per square foot of office space for 15 years. Just as the sheriff’s department acquires patrol cars, the county would own the building at the end of the leasing period.

Valued at nearly $3 million when built as the home office for Covenant Bank & Trust in 2007, the Rock Spring facility was acquired by Minnesota-based Stearns Bank for about $1.3 million when Covenant failed on March 23, 2012.

This past April, Stearns closed its Rock Spring and soon Heiskell contacted the bank’s home office, asking them to possibly donate the building as a tax write-off.

Stearns balked at a giveaway, valuing the building at $950,000, to which Heiskell countered with an offer of $500,000 that could be repaid over 15 years — about $50,000 per year.

Though that offer was rejected, negotiations to acquire the more-than-15, 000-square-foot vacant building were not abandoned.

Now the bank and county are working out final details of a lease purchase that will total between $500,000 and $700,000 as a total price with Stearns Bank financing the deal.

“I don’t think I can build or buy one any cheaper,” Heiskell said.

The commissioner noted that not only will moving the offices provide a more efficient workspace, the building itself is far more energy efficient than the current facility.

“We’ll save on power use and the building is in excellent condition — it shouldn’t need expensive repairs,” she said.

While the former Kitchens Clinic needs mold remediation and other renovations, the city of LaFayette has expressed an interest in acquiring the property and talks are underway that would allow its transfer to the city, Heiskell said.