Mayor John Cranley on Thursday offered the Hamilton County Board of Elections free space at the city-owned Shillito’s building to keep their offices and early voting downtown.
The offer comes in the middle of a contentious debate between Democrats and Republicans on the Board of Elections over whether the county should move the board to a former hospital at Mount Airy, where only one bus line runs.
The Board of Elections currently rents its offices from a private landlord. Moving to the Mount Airy facility would place the board on county-owned property and allow the county to avoid paying rent.
Along with the Board of Elections move, the county wants to establish a new crime lab at the Mount Airy location. Consolidating the crime lab and Board of Elections at the Mount Airy facility would provide the critical mass necessary to financially justify the move and the renovations it would require, according to county officials.
To solve the critical mass issue if the board moves to the former Shillito’s building instead, Cranley, a Democrat, said he’s willing to look into moving some city police services, including SWAT operations, to the Mount Airy facility.
But Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, a Republican, told CityBeat the offer probably won’t satisfy the county’s needs.
“Without the Board of Elections coming with the crime lab, that’s not enough occupancy,” he said. “There would be some good potential co-location opportunities with the city (at the Mount Airy facility), but not enough to take up 400,000 square feet.”
Hartmann said it’s now up to the Board of Elections to accept or reject the Mount Airy facility. If the board declines to move to Mount Airy, Hartmann explained the county would likely drop the Mount Airy plan and the county coroner would go without a new crime lab.
For the city, Cranley’s offer raises questions about what other potential uses exist for the Shillito’s building, given the high property demand downtown. But Cranley said there’s currently no credible attempt at marketing the facility for other uses.
“The building is vacant, and we spend over $100,000 a year just to maintain a vacant building,” Cranley said. “I believe that getting someone in there that takes a significant amount of space is going to open up the rest of the building, which would be over 200,000 square feet, to make it more marketable. I think long-term it would be better for the city financially.”
He added, “In the short-term I think there are some things more important than money. And I think the symbolism of keeping the Board of Elections and voting downtown is just worth it.”
City Council appears to agree with the mayor. Shortly after Cranley announced his offer, council passed a symbolic resolution opposing the Mount Airy move.
From an electoral perspective, part of the issue is which voting location would favor Democrats or Republicans. Democrats tend to dominate in urban areas like downtown, while Republicans could benefit from a facility in Mount Airy that’s closer to suburban voters.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, who joined Cranley for the announcement, tried to defuse concerns that she, Cranley and other Democrats are trying to keep voting downtown for electoral gains.
“The reality is the Board of Elections at its current location has declared both Democrat and Republican winners of elections,” Reece said. “I think the focus is to just make sure that we have a facility that everyone can have access to, whether you’re driving or whether you’re on the bus.”