Air Force museum -- the road to a vote
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on June 29, 2011 1:46 PM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
The property at the southeast corner of Wayne Memorial Drive and New Hope Road was purchased by the city in 2001. The proposed use for the land, a civic center with a possible Air Force museum or agricultural center attachment, never materialized.
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
The property at the southeast corner of Wayne Memorial Drive and New Hope Road was purchased by the city years ago. The proposed use of the land for a civic center site never came to fruition.
When Goldsboro celebrates Independence Day on Monday, it will also mark another potentially pivotal date in the city's history -- exactly 20 years since the North Carolina General Assembly granted the city the full use of an occupancy tax for the development of a civic center.
Since then, that tax revenue and further discussions about the center have led to site plans, schematics and multiple studies resulting in the city's current plans for an Air Force museum, and the City Council's upcoming decision at its July 5 meeting about whether or not to purchase the Arts Council building for that purpose.
When House Bill 726 was made state law on July 4, 1991, it permitted Goldsboro to implement a 5 percent occupancy tax, with the funds being put toward a feasibility study to determine how viable a civic center within its city limits would be -- a process that began on May 3, 1993, when the city drafted a $70,300 contract with Hammer, Siler, George Associates to conduct the study.
During that meeting, the late Councilman Phil Baddour Sr. noted that the center was "a long way down the road."
But it's unlikely Baddour knew just how long that road would be.
Operating under the law's provision allowing the city, if the center is not presently feasible, to split the revenues, the occupancy tax has been divided in half since that report came back, with one portion going to the city's travel and tourism division and the other going into an account to be used for improving, leasing, constructing, financing, operating or acquiring facilities.
In November 2001, $2.2 million of the fund was used toward the purchase of a 17.83-acre parcel of land for a civic center location at the corner of Wayne Memorial Drive and New Hope Road adjacent to Wayne Community College.
Ken Betsch of Design Strategies out of Greenville, S.C., brought estimates and suggestions for a civic center to a combined meeting of county and city officials in February 2004.
There was no mention of incorporating an Air Force museum, but there was discussion of the project being one the city and county should work on together. Betsch said then the $15 to $18 million facility could be completed in as little as two and a half years, but acquiring funding could result in it taking up to six.
The first mention of incorporating and Air Force museum came from Councilman Jimmy Bryan during a retreat on March 11, 2005.
"The idea came from trying to incorporate as much as possible in one location and building one building. I figured you could build one better than you can two or three little buildings. I just thought it made sense," he said Monday.
Bryan said the Air Force museum concept had existed separately as a possibility thrown around by city and base officials for years, but his mention of the museum was the first reference made in council minutes dating back to 2001, and the subject wouldn't come up again until 2009 when another study would echo Bryan's suggestion.
But in the intervening years, the pace toward a civic center and the county's agriculture center quickened.
In February 2006, County Manager Lee Smith said he and county Board of Commissioners would have to hold off on talks about the civic center since the county's agricultural center project, which had already garnered a $200,000 planning grant and a land donation from the state near Cherry Farm, would take priority until after the summer. The county was hoping to construct a large facility that could house its Cooperative Extension and other county services, as well as meeting spaces for rent.
Then-City Manager Joe Huffman said, in language that would be reused much more in the years that followed, that the fate of the civic center project rested on county support.
"The civic center is something I don't think we can handle by ourselves. We can't do it without the county. If we can't get help, then this will turn into a dead issue," he told county commissioners and city council members during an intergovernmental meeting in February 2006.
Regardless of county support, though, the civic center fund factored heavily into determining the 2008-09 fiscal year budget, as Huffman dictated that money for travel and tourism division ventures would have to come out strictly out of its half of the occupancy fund.
At that time, during budget discussions in 2008, Huffman said there was "a strong interest in keeping as much money as possible in the civic center fund."
"Some members of the council are very interested in moving forward with a Civic Center in the near future, and they want to make sure that this fund is not depleted any more than is necessary," Huffman said then. "Basically, the thinking is that it is better to reduce the amount of fund balance for tourism development efforts than to reduce the amount available to build the facility."
After a $36,000 four-month study commissioned by the city's travel and tourism committee in summer 2008, the findings were brought to council on August 18, 2008, along with the museum piece first proposed three years earlier by Bryan, by then no longer on the council.
Taylor Yewell of Strategy 5, a consultant firm in Maryland, presented the report, which included plans for a 74,000-square-foot convention center, along with a 20,000-square-foot Air Force museum and a 300-square-foot gift shop.
Yewell said the issue with Goldsboro's civic center project was finding a way to differentiate it from centers in nearby Greenville and New Bern, while making it competitive with other centers closer to the coast. The museum addition, he said, would be the center's "hook."
"If you didn't have the Air Force Museum, I'm not real sure it's feasible to have a convention center in Goldsboro with the existing supply in the region and the lack of corporate presence," he told the board.
Three sites were identified for the enormous $9.4 million facility, including the land near Wayne Community College.
A 12.95-acre tract of land on the corner of S. Center and Elm streets was a possibility, but would require building a hotel and land acquisition. Another 10-acre tract off U.S. 70 near Goldsboro's Premiere Theatre was considered as well, but would require the city to purchase the land, which was listed at $1 million.
The report concluded with talks about revenues, with Councilman Chuck Allen saying Yewell's projections of $367,000 in rental fee revenue in the first year were too high.
"I don't see anybody in Goldsboro paying that kind of money," he said then. "Seeing how the Paramount has done, and some other things, I think we'd have a tough time bringing that in."
Yewell's report estimated food and beverage revenues to be $16,515, and that the museum would generate about $20,000 in its first year, putting the facility $165,000 in the red thanks to about $560,000 in operating expenses. That figure, though, did not include an estimated annual debt service payment of $541,929 to pay off the $9.4 million building.
Yewell, however, insisted an increase in the occupancy tax base would help offset the costs, anticipating hotel guests would increase by 10 percent, pumping in an extra $56,000 into the city's occupancy fund, and increase retail spending in the county by another $176,000 annually.
By October 2008, Huffman was telling the Goldsboro Rotary Club that a meeting on the civic center was in the works with Chamber of Commerce and county officials.
"It's difficult to do this alone," he said, again. "We are looking for a partnership with the county here. I also don't think that it's moving along quite as the City Council would like it to."
But the county was looking more closely at combining the civic and ag centers when the prices associated with the latter came in much higher than had originally been anticipated.
A bill to get $3 million for the center died in committee during the 2009-10 session of the General Assembly, crippling the county's ability to pay for the $11.5 million project, an estimate that didn't include operating costs.
"When we got to the issue of the cost and looking at what operations would be at $400,000 to $600,000 a year, we backed off," County Manager Lee Smith said Thursday, stressing that the project was still on the county's list of projects, just on a "back burner."
A look by county officials into the revenue generated by other convention centers revealed that the market was down and that it would be unlikely for a center to be self-sufficient, and, Smith said, any tax increase to cover the difference was not likely to gain support from the commissioners, especially in such difficult economic times, and so the project was shelved.
The county's capital projects have since moved toward the purchase of a new senior center, a new library in Mount Olive and school facilities improvements, but there was one last chance for the agriculture center in the form of the Goldsboro/Wayne Centennial Campus project in 2009
"We did look at the possibility of the site out near Wayne Community College because of its future proximity to the new Highway 70," Smith said. "We were thinking of something larger to house all of our ag services and the Cooperative Extension. We proposed the possibility of converging the two projects into one. We said we don't feel the county's large enough to do a civic center and an ag center. We also thought it would be better off to have Cooperative Extension to manage the building."
"We had discussions with the city about utilizing the property they purchased. The city would invest the land as part of their share, plus occupancy tax and outside revenue and county money."
Smith said at that time it was not so much a discussion about an Air Force-specific museum as it was a general museum that could include Air Force, farm or agricultural displays.
"There was never any real full blown discussion of agricultural museum or an Air Force museum, only in discussions of committee members that you might be able to do something like that as kind of a side attraction," Smith said. "It was the county's contention the entire time that it has to remain agriculturally based because of funding. We were going to look at everything from Golden Leaf. We had talked to local farmers and had them involved in the committee, farm Bureau."
The facility would also serve the college, providing meeting space and possible classrooms, along with a commercial kitchen for culinary and food safety programs. A 2,500-seat auditorium would also save schools from building new auditoriums in the future, allowing for lecture and meeting space, as well as a venue to hold events from graduations to performances.
"All those things got tossed around," Smith said. "We looked at making this 2,000- to 3,000-seat facility available to schools so we could kind of sell it to the county as a community project, that instead of building larger auditoriums around the county build smaller -- only what is needed per school. Then if you need large areas to do things you would do it at this center. That would allow us if we did a school bond to inject some money there. But still it required local money to run it. Again, the project stalled."
Annual debt payments on a project that costly could run between $1.6 million to $1.8 million. Tacking on operational costs of $400,000 to $500,000 would mean a total annual cost of about $2.3 million, Smith said.
Also, Smith noted that when the county increased its rental fees at the Wayne Center that there was a drop in rentals -- an indication that the market was not there -- and that local, as well as regional and even state rentals are needed to make a civic center viable.
Accepting that the center would not be self-sufficient and that to even begin the project would likely involve a major tax increase was difficult for the board, Smith said, and likely led to the project's continued stalling.
But that didn't stop the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's president from putting together a joint plan for the City Council that could give the project one last shot.
-- Staff Writer Steve Herring contributed to this report.