The city of Anniston might buy and restore Watermark Tower to turn it into a new City Hall and possibly economically stimulate downtown.
City Manager Brian Johnson said the Anniston City Council is interested in purchasing the 11-story, historic Noble Street building after hearing a property assessment report of it during its Monday work session. Johnson said the city needs to move not just to leave a deteriorating City Hall, but to make space for a possible new federal courthouse. In addition, repurposing Watermark Tower and putting it to good use could help in the city's larger plans to revitalize downtown, Johnson and real estate consultants said.
Representatives from Birmingham-based Harbert Realty Services, a real estate consulting firm, presented the property assessment report — estimating that bringing Watermark Tower up to code would cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million. The city hired the firm six months ago to examine the building and have so far paid less than $10,000 for those services, Johnson said.
"Our effort was to do a feasibility study to see if it was worth it for the city to take this to the next step," said Harry Lynch, CEO of Harbert Realty. "It is feasible to go forward."
Johnson said the city would need to acquire a bond to buy the building and pay for its renovations. Johnson said the city has only briefly discussed a desire to purchase the building with the owner, Hubert Wright of Watermark LLC. The building, opened in 1927 as an office building, is known primarily as the home of the Anniston Waterworks and Sewer Board. It’s been up for auction several times in recent years.
Attempts to reach Wright Monday were unsuccessful.
Johnson said the current City Hall is deteriorating rapidly, noting it would cost $300,000 to repair problems with the roof. Johnson added that not much of City Hall is actually used for anything.
Also, with city offices in another building, the current City Hall property could become part of the site for a new federal courthouse, Johnson said.
According to a five-year project plan by the U.S. General Services Administration, which supervises new courthouse construction, $41 million has been allocated for design and construction work for a federal courthouse in Anniston in fiscal year 2017. Where the courthouse will be built, however, is still undecided. The city has been mulling possibly donating the City Hall property to the federal government, which could speed up the process.
“If we relocated out of this building, it would allow us to vacate and eliminate the structure on the spot,” Johnson said while sitting in his office at City Hall.
Johnson noted that making more complete use of Watermark Tower would also help with the city’s overall plans to revitalize downtown.
"We're interested in anything and everything that increases the quality of life and revitalizes the city and jumpstarts the economy," said Mayor Vaughn Stewart. "We feel this is an opportunity to preserve a historic structure and stimulate economic development."
David Williams, executive vice president for Harbert Realty, said saving and using the building could help revitalize Anniston's downtown.
"There is a lot of economic development benefits to revitalize and repurpose the building for city government use," Williams said. "You've got a historic building, close to the center business district ... people come to City Hall for all sorts of different reasons ... now you've got all kinds of private sector commitment to downtown."
Johnson said city employees themselves could help boost the downtown economy by walking down Noble Street to shop or eat during their lunch breaks or after work. Increased foot traffic would then possibly encourage new businesses to open up shop downtown, he said.
Johnson said, however, that he still needs to work with Harbert Realty more before he can recommend whether the council should buy Watermark Tower.
"We have no design at all regarding space assessment, whether we want cubicles or not ... all that plays into how much everything will cost," Johnson said.