The N.C. National Guard’s government and legislative affairs director said possible sites for a new Guard facility presented by Wilkes County government would be considered as an alternative to renovating the existing armory in North Wilkesboro.
This was Brian Pierce’s response during the Sept. 21 county commissioners meeting when Commissioner Brian Minton asked if the Guard would look at sites suggested by the county.
“We would be falling down on our jobs if we didn’t take a look at other options,” said Pierce, adding that they would be considered by National Guard and N.C. Department of Public Safety leaders.
Minton mentioned a site at the Wilkes County Airport, saying it’s perfectly level, has good access and “is a win for everybody.”
When the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution at their Aug. 17 meeting in support of constructing a Guard “readiness center” in Wilkes, they discussed possibly building it at the airport. The resolution was sent to Major Gen. M. Todd Hunt, N.C. National Guard adjutant general, and others.
In addition to Pierce, attending the Sept. 21 meeting in response to the resolution were Col. Rodney Newton, N.C. National Guard construction facilities management officer, and Kenny Cook, Guard deputy director, federal operations.
Pierce said considering other sites would push the timeline back even more. He said the decision to renovate the existing armory here, built in 1956, was made earlier this year.
“At the end of the day we’re going to make the best decision for the N.C. National Guard and adhere to the will of the voters.”
Pierce apparently was at least partly referencing voters who passed the March 2016 Connect NC bond referendum. Legislation authorizing the bond vote said it included $70 million for “readiness centers” in Guilford, Burke and Wilkes counties.
He said during the meeting that a “readiness center” is the same thing as an armory but more closely fits its purpose.
Nothing in legislation authorizing the bond vote said any of the three would be regional facilities or not, but Pierce said the plan leading up to the referendum was for Guilford and Burke to get what are now called regional readiness centers. These encompass multiple counties and have substantially more soldiers and equipment.
Minton said his understanding was that Wilkes was supposed to get a regional readiness center.
Pierce responded, “Wilkes was always going to be a spoke and the regional readiness centers are the hubs under our readiness center master transformation plan done around 2013 or 2014.” He said this plan looked at demographics, resources and how the Guard can react to emergencies while balancing federal requirements.
Some state government press releases before and after the bond vote stated that regional readiness centers were planned in all three counties. As the years moved along after the bond vote, state government reports more consistently indicated regional facilities were planned in Guilford and Burke but not Wilkes.
Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro, a state senator before and after the Connect NC bond vote, said during the meeting that she was involved with the process concerning a Guard facility in Wilkes from day one.
Randleman said a distinction was never formally made between a regional and non-regional Guard facility, but the new facility proposed in Wilkes was supposed to also serve Watauga County.
“When we met with the commissioners in 2018 or 2019, the Guardsmen from Watauga County came down and met with us. I guess that’s where the regional part came in…. It was supposed to be for northwest North Carolina,” not just Wilkes.
Wilkes voters who were urged to vote for the bond package thought the county was to get a new regional Guard facility, not a renovation of the current facility, she added.
Randleman said turnover of people in key jobs, including Pierce’s position and North Wilkesboro town manager, caused “misinterpretation of information.”
“People voted for the bond package because of the possibility of having something here for northwest North Carolina, but now we’re learning that it’s not really for northwest North Carolina” and much less than was expected is being spent on Wilkes.
“There are a lot of people who live in this county who feel that way. They feel like they were encouraged to vote for a bond package and now they’re learning that what they voted for wasn’t what they thought it was.”
She added, “From what I understand from what’s going on in Raleigh,” state government has plenty of money.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said it’s obvious on maps that Wilkes is the hub of northwestern N.C. “I think the voters of this county and northwest North Carolina were looking for more than an upfit” of the current Guard facility on Armory Road.
Settle added, “I feel like if we don’t get more, when another vote (referendum) comes up, this county and northwestern N.C. will say no thank you. We feel like we got hosed in the last one. We ask you to reconsider. We’ll show you land.”
(Settle said in an interview that County Manager John Yates is going to take Guard officials to multiple potential sites in Wilkes.)
Commissioner David Gambill concurred with Settle and added that Republicans and Democrats in Wilkes agree on this. All five commissioners are Republicans.
Larry Pendry of Millers Creek, retired sergeant first class in the North Wilkesboro-based Guard unit and former chairman of the Wilkes County Democratic Party, said “If the bond package said three readiness centers, that’s what North Carolina should get.”
Pendry added, “Additional money was allocated for Burke and Wilkes in 2018. There is (an additional) $10 million in the state budget right now for water and sewer lines to the facility in Guilford.”
He said it makes much more sense to provide the additional funds needed to build a regional facility at the airport “that can be force multiplier for eight or 10 counties in our area.” Pendry said the Guard responds to various weather emergencies and it’s concerning for northwestern North Carolina to not be better served.
He questioned spending $8 million to upgrade the current armory when it wasn’t scheduled for an upgrade.
Newton said the current 13,300-square-foot facility on a 3.7-acre parcel on Armory Road has a replacement value of about $3 million.
Under the current plan for renovating the existing facility, he added, design work could be completed in 12 months and then finish construction in about 18 months.
“There is potential to add new spaces either with the armory or the site or both. The existing structure is sound and solid and can be converted to last for another 25-30 years and potentially 50 if maintained properly,” he said.
Newton said the existing armory is dimly-lit and has too little space, window air conditioner units, radiated heat, inefficient windows, outdated office furniture and flaking paint. He said it needs mechanical upgrades and modernization for new digital devices. The facility has building code and ADA compliance issues and bathroom plumbing needing replacement.
Settle asked why renovating the existing facility is being proposed when state officials said when the bond referendum passed that a new readiness center would be built on 110 acres given by the Town of North Wilkesboro in its industrial park on River Road/Liberty Grove Road.
Pierce said about $7 million of the $70 million was originally earmarked for Wilkes, but it was determined that grading and infrastructure (roads, lights, power, water and sewer) alone would cost $14 to $16 million.
He said that even with an additional $7 million allocated for the Wilkes facility in 2018, it’s still too costly. This didn’t factor in inflation.
He said it was a matter of “what can we do under the confines of that bond to honor the will of the voters but also make the most cost-effective resource decisions for the National Guard.”
Settle said, “Well, there just seems to be a feeling in the county that we’re getting a short end of the stick,” especially with only $8 million being spent on Wilkes.
North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said in June that he and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson decided it was best to support renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of insisting on building on the 119 acres. He said this was discussed with commissioners individually and they concurred, so a letter stating this was sent to Pierce.