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Inside the county's mysterious 'public work room' 

Have you heard? The county has created an Uptown office space — room 208 of the County and Courts Office Building at 720 E. Trade St. — that is free for anyone to use ... but good luck finding a spot to set up shop.

According to David Granberry, elected register of deeds in 2008 and the headman in the building, the "public work room is a complicated issue" that "came into being in late 1999." He said it was created to offer non-county employees — in this case, "attorneys, paralegals and other researchers" — a place where they could "put their pencil boxes and brief cases, and have some desk space to write summaries."

"That room is available to anyone who wants to use it," he confirmed. Granberry inherited the room from his predecessor, Judy Gibson, though he used it, he said, "from my prior days as a paralegal doing real estate research."

Although it was intended to be temporary workspace, a large number of people have moved into the unlocked room, bringing with them computers, large printers and plastic drawers. The people talk to each other like co-workers and have free access to desks, chairs, WiFi, electricity, restrooms and air conditioning. Even FedEx delivers here, since there's no shyness about using the room as a business address.

The space also features a break room, complete with a refrigerator and microwave. Most of the workers bring their lunches, "since we're poor," one woman shouted from her desk when the topic came up. "Since we work for attorneys," said another.

But, the room's not exactly free — since taxpayers cover the expenses, though not many know it exists; operators at 311 were clueless when asked, and, as of this writing, there's not a peep about it on the county's website.

A sign on one of the room's two doors, labeled "208 B," reads, "This is a public work room. The individuals in this room DO NOT work for nor are they employed by the county or the state of North Carolina." (space) "Please ask for notary assistance." (Note: There is a second door to the room, labeled "208 A," that does not have any signs notifying visitors of the non-employee status of those inside. It's the door closest to the elevator and one the most used by visitors.)

This is the building to come to for marriage licenses, death certificates, real estate deeds or certified copies of military discharge documents. Technically, office hours are 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., but the people in this office don't have to adhere to that standard. They can enter the building until 5:45 p.m. on weekdays and leave whenever they want; the building's main door will lock behind them, though the public workspace is never locked.

The large room overlooks the courthouse's courtyard. There's a long table lining a windowed wall with about a dozen and a half workspaces. Many of the chairs have jackets or sweaters on them, and there are family pictures, calendars, any office supply you could ever want, children's artwork and an American flag someone taped in the middle of the windowed wall.

The next row of cubicle-colored tables is two-deep and just as long as the one beneath the windows, with enough room for about three dozen more workers. Large printers are covered with sticky-notes, file organizers overflow, purses and expand-a-files are left unattended (despite a bank of lockers available to those with their own lock), and array of water bottles and other personal items fill much of the rest of the space.

When I walked in and asked if this was a public work area, I was told it was. I glanced around at the clutter and asked where I should sit.

"How long do you plan to be here?" a woman asked.

"For a little while," I said.

"Well, you can sit there," she said, pointing to a bare gray table, "She usually only works here in the afternoon," she said of someone who must frequent the space, though the only thing on that table was a plastic pencil box.

I thanked her, sat down and logged into my laptop. The first order of business: find a WiFi connection. There are six available, though the one you want is "Meck Public." It's unsecured, but it's got excellent strength. More importantly, it's free and smokin' fast.

A cell phone rang. "Hello, this is Martha," another woman said. "Yeah, I have a couple things in there for accounting. OK, thanks." She hung up and went back to typing on her laptop. Her "cubical" is on the end. Mounds of paperwork cover her workspace and push out into the walkway where there's a trashcan and a recycling bin.

Who does the cleaning? — you might wonder, as I did. Granberry said the county does.

To be sure I had the right WiFi connection, I asked one of the more talkative women in the office to double-check me. She identified herself as "Chris."

I asked if she works here every day, and she said she did. Chris also said that she works for an attorney's office, adding that most of the women there do, too. Since they're here all the time anyway, doing title searches and such, she said it only makes sense that they work in this room.

What's clear is that these people aren't just stopping in to log onto the Internet or to write a summary; they work here all the time, at taxpayers' expense.

A few minutes later, a woman walked up to me and said, "I need a notary."

"I'm not a notary," I said, "but she is," gesturing to the woman in the shirt with "Flip Flop" spelled out in glitter.

"Come right around here," she said. "Got your I.D.?"

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