The North Wilkesboro commissioners on Sept. 7 tabled a vote to convert a former women’s prison off Boston Avenue to a training facility for the town’s fire department and other area firefighters.
Commissioners Andrew Palmer and Michael Parsons recommended not taking action on the matter until the board’s Oct. 7 meeting. They asked Town Manager Wilson Hooper and Fire Chief Jimmy Martin to submit tentative annual operating expenses of the planned facility.
The tax value of the town-owned 3.59-acre parcel that contains the former county women’s detention center is $239,590. The site has been mentioned as the possible location of a fire substation to complement the main fire station off Ninth Street.
The facility was constructed in 1985 as a state juvenile detention center and was deeded by North Carolina to Wilkes County government in 2003 for $1 when the juvenile facility there was closed the same year. The county deeded it to the town at no cost in 2015.
The women’s prison was closed in December 2014, and it’s been official vacant since then, even though the North Wilkesboro Fire Department has been using it as a satellite training facility.
Hooper said the NWFD is using the facility’s interior “as is” for simple training installations. The department hasn’t done any renovations or improvements to the building, he added.
Martin on Sept. 7 asked the board if his department could take permanent possession of the building, make improvements to it and transform it into a training facility for area firefighters.
“It won’t take much to make it a certified training facility,” he said. “The building is solid as a rock and will be there when we’re all dead and gone.”
The NWFD is currently using portions of the Wilkes County Landfill as a training area. “For me to keep sending firefighters to the dump is just not right and leaves us unprotected,” Martin said.
Hooper said an in-town training facility would help the NWFD maintain readiness, certifications and a good Insurance Services Office (ISO) score. “Our goal is to maintain or lower the town’s ISO score,” added Martin.
The town would invest in the facility incrementally every year so it won’t be a one-time large expense. “We can do it very economically,” said Hooper. “It wouldn’t be a huge loss to our bottom line if we take off the market and use it for our own purposes.”
Hooper said the most significant upfit in making it a certified training center would be the installation of a live-fire simulator unit, made up of shipping crates on the lawn behind the current building.
Martin estimated it would cost around $10,000 to get the live-fire unit installed.
Commissioner Angela Day said she was concerned about the potential smell impact on nearby residents. “I would like to see us sell this lot as commercial property,” she added.
Hooper said that NWFD has pledged that their activities there would not affect neighboring properties. Martin added that most training there would be done after hours.
Commissioner Debbie Ferguson said that aside from the parcel being used for a joint police-fire safety facility, the fire training facility would be a good use of the property.
Also on Sept. 7, the board:
• accepted a $952,185.71 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace a 35-year-old aerial fire truck. The total cost of the truck is anticipated to be $1.3 million, requiring the town to earmark $348,000 as a local match;
• agreed to jointly fund an engineering study with the Town of Wilkesboro on the feasibility of purchasing treated water from Wilkesboro in the event of drought or other emergency, and vice versa. The towns’ water systems are already physically connected by three unmetered junctions;
• approved the temporary closing of C Street between Ninth and 10th streets on Oct. 22 between 3-9 p.m., coinciding with the opening reception of an exhibition of works by local artist Ward Nichols at the Wilkes Art Gallery; and
• reappointed Gerald Lankford to another three-year term on the North Wilkesboro Alcoholic Beverage Control board of officers.