06/03/10 — DGDC chief speaks out on loss of rec center

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DGDC chief speaks out on loss of rec center

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 3, 2010 1:46 PM

More than a month after members of the Goldsboro City Council voted to not move forward with construction of a recreation center along Center Street, the loss is still being felt by those who have worked for the last several years to make the facility a reality.

"The rec center, to me, is a big loss ... because it would have been an instant traffic generator," said Julie Thompson, Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. executive director. "I felt like it was probably going to be the single biggest draw downtown. It was going to bring in an influx of people who don't normally come downtown ... so it's a huge loss."

And a surprising one.

"The council had essentially said if it came in at under $10 million, it was a do-able project. And then the bids came in at $8.7 million," Mrs. Thompson said. "So when the bids came in, we were all excited. We thought, 'OK, we got the project.' Obviously that wasn't so."

The city has been eyeing construction of a new recreation center since the previous facility, opened in 1925 and located on Walnut Street, was destroyed by fire in 2004. In June 2005, a committee was formed to research a possible reconstruction, and since then, the group produced a design, location and most of the additional details to make it happen.

But the project was put on hold in January 2009 because of a shaky economy -- the same climate that prompted Bob Waller, Jackie Warrick, Michael Headen and Donnie Chatman to vote the project down April 23.

"If we had gotten to this point and the bids had come back the way they did two years prior, when the economy wasn't the way it is now ... I think they would have all supported it. So that's pretty frustrating," Mrs. Thompson said. "I think the project itself -- what it was intended to do, the benefits that it would have provided, not just for downtown but for the whole community -- is something each one of them supported."

The council had, after all, already invested more than $1 million over the past several years to fund the plans and to purchase the property, she said.

"But, in the end, these are challenging times and people are scared," Mrs. Thompson said. "And I think anybody who is in the position as a council member that has that kind of weighted responsibility has to think, 'Am I going to be putting the city in jeopardy?' It's a heavy responsibility."

Just after the vote, both Waller and Chatman made comments to that end.

"Pretty much, where we are right now as far as the city budget ... it looks like we're going to have to freeze positions again, probably cut programs, and we're still looking at an increase in taxes just to maintain what we have," Chatman said then. "So even though I am totally for the rec center and what it can do for the city and downtown, I think that for me, I need to know that the city is going to be able to maintain what we have -- that we won't be digging ourselves deeper and deeper.

"I don't want the city to be in the position where we have to continue to raise taxes ... because pretty soon, we wouldn't have any people to pay those taxes because they would leave. So economically, I don't feel good that we can do this project and still maintain what we have. I would love to see the project and I want to see it, but I can't vote for it right now."

Waller agreed.

"I think it's the timing and the economy. I think we need (the recreation center) ... and two years from now or two years ago, maybe. But today, right now, no," he said. "I've just got to be sure. I'm sure (the plan) would probably work, but I can't guarantee that to you. And that's a problem."

So Mrs. Thompson does not fault those four who chose to kill the project.

"I think (the members of the council), all of them, do a really good job thinking about the impact of projects not just on their own districts, but on the city as a whole," she said. "I think having to make the decision then and there is what put it to rest. The vote was, for the most part, all about money."

And it is for that reason that Mrs. Thompson and other champions of the ongoing effort to bring the city's core back to its glory days remain hopeful.

"We're still mourning the potential loss of it, but there is still a glimmer of hope that it could be done in the next several years," Mrs. Thompson said, adding that requests to receive federal funding for the project have not been pulled since the vote. "So there are still some doors that are semi-open. But we'll just have to wait and see."