Perhaps never in the history of Mississippi government will saying goodbye to a longtime home be as joyful as the July 4th weekend departure of the state Department of Revenue from its tin warehouse off Springridge Road in Raymond.
Snakes and birds, soot from a long ago fire and rain water from below walls and down from the ceilings – even an exploding toilet – were all features of the 17-year exile that is about to end for the Revenue Department.
The 500 or so DOR workers will trade an over-sized shed designed to store Mississippi Power Co. equipment for Class A office space just up Springridge Road at SouthPointe Business Park, the former home of telecom giant WorldCom just off Interstate 20. The late March 2013 news of the SouthPointe selection brought spontaneous cheers and applause from the workers, a few of whom were part of what was suppose to be a 2-year relocation to Raymond from downtown Jackson’s Woolfolk building.
The celebratory vibes have only increased with the closeness of moving day. “Hallelujah! Seriously, we are so anxious to go,” said Kathy Waterbury, the DOR’s communications chief who was among those moved out of the Woolfolk.
A series of circumstances
After the Woolfolk’s renovation, state officials decided to move workers from the nearby Walter Sillers building into the Woolfolk while Sillers underwent renovation. Those workers, however, remained at the Woolfolk permanently. With Sillers’ space insufficient for the DOR, the revenue agency’s stay in the Raymond warehouse became permanent.
Hopes for getting out died with arrival of the Great Recession and accompanying state budget cuts near the end of the last decade “When we came out of the recession, we started saying it was our turn. This has gone on long enough,” Waterbury said.
Even after getting the go-ahead from the state, finding a suitable site and deciding whether to build new or buy or lease an existing building took another several years. The pending July 2014 end to the lease on the Raymond warehouse finally forced a decision: the DOR would take a long-term lease on slightly more than 200,000 square feet covering seven floors in two buildings at SouthPointe.
Revenue Commissioner Ed Morgan’s patience got plenty of testing during the wait for a green light to start the hunt and through the hunt itself. “It started off as a very long and very frustrating process,” Morgan said in an interview last week.
Although it was a long wait, it was a fair process, Morgan said, alluding to the feelings of some downtown Jackson proponents that provincial politics led to selection of SouthPointe in Clinton, home of House Speaker Philip Gunn, over the vacant Landmark Center a few blocks from the Capitol.
While the Landmark’s price had been cut nearly in half from an original price of $14 million, leasing SouthPointe proved the better fit, according to Morgan. “Financially, it was a good investment. It met our operational needs,” he said.
“Wherever we went, we wanted to be a in a facility that would offer efficiency and the ability to serve the public.”
Morgan, a former state senator and 12-year mayor of Hattiesburg, took over as tax commissioner on Jan. 1, 2009 on an appointment from Gov. Haley Barbour to fill an unexpired 1 1/2-year term of predecessor Joseph Blount. Barbour reappointed Morgan to a full 6-year term in 2010.
He’s glad to put the massive storage shed behind him but noted he is even more pleased to see DOR workers finally get suitable quarters. “After 17 years in a less-than-desirable facility and having to deal with the summer high temperatures and leaky roofs, employees are in a hallelujah mode.”
Hiring and keeping staffers has been difficult throughout the extended stay, Morgan noted, and said he looks forward to showing future staff prospects around the DOR’s new modern and attractive SouthPointe offices.
Further, the new home is well equipped to meet the revenue agency’s operational needs, he added. “We have a lot of requirements for auditors and CPAs” the warehouse building has been unable to meet.
Morale among DOR workers is shooting way up, according to Morgan. In turn, he said, productivity expectations have been raised. “This is an opportunity to continue to raise the bar on what our expectations are from our people. I think you’ll see a marked increase in productivity.”
Security for data and records will be greatly enhanced as well, Morgan said.
Accommodating the visiting public will also be easier, he said.
Workers are completing a separate entrance for the public next to Building Two at the south end of the SouthPointe complex. A parking lot exclusively for the public has also been added.
Lastly, Morgan will breathe easier once everyone is out of the building at 1577 Springridge Road. “We took over a building designed to store equipment. It was not made for people.”
Nor was it made to withstand the force of a tornado. Emergency preparedness officials emphasized that point during a visit a while back.
“They suggested that for tornado warnings, we should move everyone to the front of the building,” Morgan said.
“That would make it easier for them to find the bodies,” he said they told him.
Fire and rain — and wildlife
The DOR’s tin warehouse was a refuge of sorts for birds that nested in its ceiling and for snakes seeking relief from Mississippi’s summer heat.
Visqueen has long covered the tops of cubicles to keep out bird droppings and other things that could fall from the ceiling.
Waterbury related in an interview a couple of years ago encountering a snake slithering down the hallway outside her office. She said she reacted by jumping atop her desk and was grateful that a staff lawyer across the hall grabbed the snake and escorted it outside the building.
More recently, workers packing for the SouthPointe move found a three-foot live cottonmouth inside one of the moving boxes. “They’re coming in from the wooded area behind the building,” Waterbury said. “They’re just waltzing in.”
Preparations for moving have also brought back memories of the 2003 Memorial Day weekend fire inside the building as staffers cleared away soot that has remained. A battery pack too close to a cubicle caused the fire, Waterbury said. “It lit the cubicle on fire and the whole row of cubicles went with it.”
Soot – the hard to clean plastic variety – covered much of the building when workers returned the Tuesday after Memorial Day. “My office was 40 yards away [from the fire] and I had three inches of soot on top of my desk,” Waterbury said.
In all, soot covered 160,000 square feet of open space. “Everything had to be taken out and scrubbed and brought back in,” she said.
Still, the circa 2003 soot has very much been in evidence as workers have cleared out cubicle areas in recent days, according to Waterbury. “Have you ever dealt with soot from a plastic-based fire?”
It doesn’t go away easily, she said.
Back in 1997, the state bought “the smallest and cheapest” cubicle furnishings available, figuring the fixtures would only be used for a couple of years, Waterbury said.
“Seventeen years later they are literally falling a part and are covered with soot,” she added, attributing further damage to the furnishings to storm water that has seeped in from the outside and fallen from the ceiling.
The exploding toilet?
Blame that on a water-pressure backup one winter day several years back, Waterbury said.
“I’m so glad we’re going to a place without exploding toilets,” she said.
“We’ll have normal size cubicles that are clean, that don’t have soot in them, that aren’t falling apart and don’t have walls that are leaning.”
And we don’t have to worry about birds flying over our heads, Waterbury added.