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July 9, 2014

Council gives go to recreation/event center

GREENVILLE — The Greenville City Council voted Tuesday night to proceed with the establishment of a recreation/event center in the Greenville SportsPark.

Votes will be taken at future meetings to formally sell the $15 million in bonds needed for the project and eventually to determine whether the YMCA will operate and manage the facility.

Tuesday’s decision by the council was not unanimous and came after a long night of hearing from both those who supported the project and those who cautioned against what they believed might be a financial nightmare for the city, amid questions as to whether local voters were deceived by those who campaigned for the project.

The vote was 4-2 in favor of a plan to construct a recreation and event center in the SportsPark and directing the city staff to complete the process of preparing to sell the general obligation bonds.

Council members Dan Perkins, Holly Gotcher, Renee Francey and Sandra Linson-Bell voted for the measure, while Mayor Steve Reid and Council member James Evans voted against. Council member Jeff Dailey indicated he had a conflict of interest and recused himself and abstained from the discussion and vote on the item.

David Bench, YMCA Support Committee Chairman, met with the council during a work session Tuesday night, making a formal presentation on the status of the project, reminding the council that voters approved the bonds during a May 2013 election.

“It doesn’t say if, and or but anywhere in there,” Bench said, referring to the language in the bond referendum. “It says go do it.”

Bench’s remarks were often greeted with applause from members of the audience, who overflowed the council chambers and took seats in the hallway of the Municipal Building. Many of those in attendance sported emblems indicating they were in support of the project moving forward.

Bench said that based on the most recent meetings of the projects various committees, “we can build it within the $15 million, with a pretty good reserve.”

There had been some minor changes to the proposed facility, including increasing the size of the double gymnasium/event center portion from 11,000 to 14,000 total square feet.

“That’s big enough to seat 600 people at round tables,” Bench said, adding that with the contributions and pledges received, the center would add about 5.29 cents per $100 valuation to the city’s property tax rate, costing the average homeowner about $4 per month.

During the council’s regular agenda, some two dozen people spoke about the project, most of whom were in support of the council moving ahead.

Kelly Gaudreau, CEO/President of the YMCA of Greenville & Hunt County, stressed the current building is on its last legs.

“Its life span is anywhere from several months to a year,” Gaudreau said, adding that maintenance and repair costs on the more than 50-year-old facility have continued to rise.

Andy Bench, who serves on the YMCA board, reminded the council that the voters had spoken.

“If you vote no on this ... you will say you do not follow the will of the people,” Bench said. “They said yes and so should you.”

Not everyone agreed that the project should move forward.

Josh Furnish said the idea of a recreation and/or event center is a good one, just not using tax money.

“Both of these entities should be on the backs of private investors and not on the backs of the taxpayers,” Furnish said.

“It definitely needs to be coming from the private sector,” echoed Duane May, who also cautioned over what would happen if the YMCA is unable to continually make the needed payments on the center. “If they are short, then they are going to be coming back to the City of Greenville to subsidize that shortfall.”

Later, Jerry Ransom, who was at one time one of the project’s major supporters, addressed the council to explain the concerns which he had about the effort, which resulted his withdrawing a $1 million pledge. Ransom noted there were questions over allegedly missing financial statements from the YMCA, to Gaudreau insisting that the Greenville Independent School District had agreed to contributing $1 million to the project over 10 years.

“What he didn’t bother to tell me is that the agreement was only for one year,” Ransom said, referring to a transcript of a March 26, 2013 meeting of the Greenville ISD board where the matter was discussed. “Unwittingly, I and others had perpetuated what I consider a fraud.”

Later Gaudreau,  both Andy and David Bench and Jerry Grady and Joe Weis — other members of the YMCA committee — maintained that the agreement was indeed for $1 million over 10 years, although by law the current Greenville ISD board can not formally encumber future board members. David Bench also explained that the YMCA’s accounting problems had been straightened out as of the start of the year.

When it came time for the council to speak, Perkins said since he came to Greenville, he had been involved with the establishment of the Greenville SportsPark, the Reecy Davis Recreation Center, improvements to Graham Park and other ventures which were considered too expensive for the cit.

“But what all of these things have done ... is to bring citizens together,” Perkins said. “It’s what you expect from a city.”

Evans said he there were other matters to be addressed by the city, from roads and plumbing to cost of living adjustments for retired police officers.

“We can’t meet these needs right now,” Evans said.

Francey said she was in favor of the center, but was not sold on the YMCA running the facility.

Reid explained that the city may be facing some huge financial obstacles in the future.

“We don’t what’s coming down the pike,” he said, also noting that the supporters campaigned on promise that the center would add 2.4 cents to the property tax rate.

“And that is not what it is,” Reid said.

City Attorney Daniel Ray indicated that the council would need to vote in about two or three months to formally issue the bonds and then will come the decision on whether the YMCA would get the contract to operate the center.

“And that’s much further down the line,” Ray said. “That will take several months of negotiations.”

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