Plans grind to a halt
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on June 30, 2011 1:46 PM
When the Goldsboro City Council makes its decision Tuesday concerning the purchase of the Arts Council of Wayne County building for an Air Force museum, it will not be the first time a vote has been taken on such a site.
In fact, in 2009, the plans for the museum were one vote away from coming to fruition as the council rejected, by a 4-3 margin, a county-sponsored agricultural center and a convention center during a retreat in February.
Former Wayne County Chamber of Commerce President Steve Hicks had heard whispers of some in the community's desire for an Air Force museum honoring Seymour Johnson Air Force Base ever since he came to Goldsboro in 1990, and rumblings about a civic center throughout his career with the Chamber.
So, a year after Strategy 5's report on the feasibility of a civic center with an Air Force museum component was presented to the City Council in 2008, Hicks found it easy to envision a combination of the ideas, especially when county officials expressed their interest in adding their agriculture center to the facility, along with the stimulus funds they hoped would follow it.
"Realizing that the county was also very interested in developing a new agricultural center, we thought that one of the ways to get it all done at the same time was to propose a situation where the county and the city would actually come together and utilize the property the city owned out at the college and combine all the projects together," he said. "(The plan) called for not only a convention center, but an Air Force museum, the agriculture building and some other things that would really create sort of a centennial center operated by the college, the city and the county, but it was just a proposal."
Hicks presented to the council an option on February 19, 2009, for a Goldsboro/Wayne Centennial Campus, which would combine all those ideas, once again pushing the city's civic center plans to the forefront.
Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen made a motion to establish the city's nearly 20 acres of land at the corner of Wayne Memorial Drive and New Hope Road adjacent to Wayne Community College as the proposed site for a civic center that, with county and college support, would meet all of the previously discussed needs. That measure was defeated 4-3 when Mayor Al King and councilmen Michael Headen, Don Chatman and the Rev. Charles Williams voted against the proposal.
But Allen insisted the project needed some direction for the civic center to ever be a possibility.
"We need to resolve where it's going to go or else it's never going anywhere," Allen said during the 2009 meeting.
A downtown option at the Elm Street end of Center Street, would not offer the same amount of space and would require cutting through more tape since it wasn't a part of the city's newly crafted master plan.
"You'd have to change the master plan or use the train station for it to be downtown, and that would take years and millions of dollars," Allen said.
But King wasn't convinced the location on Wayne Memorial was the best spot for the city, despite its close proximity to both U.S. Highway 70 Bypass and the new bypass under construction.
"That's the best place for the county, but is it the best place for Goldsboro? When we build it, it needs to benefit Goldsboro. At this time, I'm not ready to say to put it there," King said during the meeting.
What pushed him to be more disenchanted with the proposal was his not being aware that the collaborative plan was in the works.
"This is the first time that I've heard about it. I'm the mayor of this city. Someone better learn that they better include the mayor in their discussion. I didn't have a clue about this idea," he said then.
Allen continued his petitioning, telling the mayor that unless the council picked a site, the plan was dead.
"Well, then it's dead," King said.Allen immediately asked how the project could be revived.
"I don't know. We have been dickering around with this since I've been on the council," King said.
Hicks suggested allowing the chamber and his committee to look into the options more closely and to present their findings again at a later date, but King said he wasn't interested in further input from officials.
"The input I want is not from the county, it's from the citizens, the residents of the city of Goldsboro," King said. "I, today, am not convinced that what you presented is in the city of Goldsboro's best interest."
Allen said Tuesday that he felt King simply wanted to keep the downtown option on the table.
"I think at the time, the mayor took that as us trying not to put it downtown, but that wasn't the issue," he said, adding that his prediction that the council's failure to act would lead to more delays on the civic center project has come true. "You can see nothing happened."
Part of the problem, Allen said, is that the county wasn't on board with the downtown option.
"At the time, the county had said they weren't interested in putting a civic center downtown, so if we were ever going to have a civic center, we needed to pursue that (Wayne Memorial) location," he said.
The other part, he added, was that the stimulus money the county had hoped to receive for the project never appeared.
"We told them 'We'll give you the land,' but they never were able to pull that off. That's the last anybody's ever talked about it," he said.
Speaking Friday, King recalled that 2009 discussion and how he wasn't made aware of the combination project beforehand. Though it was put to a vote in the council, King said the collaborative idea was never seriously discussed. After the council voted down the proposal, "it died."
"I didn't know anything about it," he said. "They hadn't shared anything."
Hicks remembered the situation similarly.
"Several of the City Council members felt it was to be done, but other council members weren't up to speed enough with the project, and I agreed, at the time, that they weren't," he said. "They felt like they needed more information."
Hicks said the idea didn't completely die at that time and that he continued to feed the council members information, but as the two boards bided their time with their other respective capital projects, the economy quickly took a turn that would spell the end of the collaborative effort.
"The city and the county couldn't agree on what exactly needed to be done, and then the economy had tanked. The city was looking at a lot of other things at that time. They weren't just solely concerned with that part of the project so it just didn't get much support," he said.
District 1 County Commissioner Andy Anderson recalls a similar view of the proposal.
"It didn't really give us a lot of focus and lot of meat. It had a lot of generalities. I guess we were all kind of at a loss on which way to go with it," he said.
King said it was much simpler than that.
"It didn't matter where it was going to be built. We didn't have the money," he said.
But as the civic center project drifted further down on the city's priority list, a non-profit's quest to find a downtown location was about to reignite the council's Air Force museum idea as the Arts Council of Wayne County placed its building on the market in October 2010.
-- Staff Writer Steve Herring contributed to this report.