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Since the economy prompted Bel Air’s town officials to put a planned expansion of Town Hall on hold, the town may consider purchasing the vacant former BB&T bank building for office space and may even be close to sealing the deal.

Town officials admit they are studying a possible purchase of the building, though they have kept their deliberations hush-hush. There have been no discussions about the subject at town government public meetings going back several months.

The building, at 37 S. Main St., is still owned by BB&T, according to tax assessment records. The building, constructed about 40 years ago, is listed for sale at $2.5 million, according to the broker handling it.

Donnell “Beetle” Smith Jr., of RKS Realty, said Monday that the building, which sits between a parking lot and the sheriff’s office building, has been under contract for about three weeks.

Smith would not say who entered the contract, but said the matter is in a “study period,” expected to last until mid-April, in which the prospective buyer can decide whether to move forward with the purchase.

The prospective buyer can still back out of the contract at the end of the study period, he said.

Town administrator Chris Schlehr said, however, that no contract or formal agreement has been signed, but he confirmed he will know within 30 days if the town will move forward with taking over the building.

“We have got a number of plans and options that we are looking at right now,” he said, but could not come up with any plans other than buying the bank building and expanding Town Hall.

The selling price for the building has been listed at $2.5 million, Smith said.

Town Attorney Charles Keenan said the town does not have to publicly disclose such a purchase until there is what he called “a hard contract.”

“If there is a sure thing about the purchase of a property, when the contract goes hard and the town is committed to the project, I think that’s the time it’s made public,” he said. “As long as [the town] has unlimited discretion by itself and can turn the deal down... it’s confidential.”

Town commissioner Terry Hanley said he came up with the idea of taking over the property after witnessing the auction of three county-owned buildings nearly a year ago. One building on Courtland Street across the from the courthouse was sold; two others did not fetch bids, however.

“I couldn’t believe they sold that one property for $100,000,” he said. “If we are going to do something, now would be the time to do it.”

Since then, the idea of consolidating town services into the bank building has been tossed around among the commissioners and Schlehr but has not been discussed publicly, he said.

The proposal became more serious within the past two months, with commissioners doing walk-throughs of the building.

“It’s in very good condition,” Hanley noted.

He also could not confirm, however, that a contract had been signed.

“We are exploring that right now,” he said.

Commissioner Rob Preston said Monday he could not confirm the town has signed any contract.

“My perception was there was some move to submit a contract, but I don’t know that that contract has been approved,” he said. “As far as I know, everything has really been on hold because of the economy.”

Commissioner Ed Hopkins also said that was the only property he is aware of that the town has been considering.

“There was a lot of going back and forth,” he said about the project, adding he did not think it was financially unfeasible.

Hopkins noted he had not supported the expansion of Town Hall, although he thinks the police department needs more space, but said he liked the idea of moving administrative offices to a more central location.

The police department would most likely stay in the existing building, he said.

“Certainly by putting town government on Main Street, we are more in the public eye,” he said. “I still believe the town police department needs renovations.”


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