A controversy was reignited when the Marietta City Council on Wednesday approved $1.2 million in a 6-1 vote to buy church property for one of its parks.
“It’s already a recreation facility. It’s Turner Chapel’s Family Life Center,” City Councilman Johnny Sinclair said.
Opponents fear it will become the city’s only recreation facility, pre-empting a major reconstruction of the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center.
City Councilman Anthony Coleman voted against buying the property, which he sees as diverting attention and resources from Elizabeth Porter.
He said having the center on North Marietta Parkway, near the Square, will be better than tucking one away on Fairground Street, near the parkway.
“My preference was if we were going to build a state-of-the-art facility, it would be more centrally located,” Coleman said. “If you’re building something for the entire city, location is important.”
He said the building will be a major landmark on the parkway, also known as the North Loop of Ga. Loop 120.
“When you build something, you want it to be seen. You don’t want it to be hid,” Coleman said. “For the facility we’re going to build, the North Loop is the gateway into the city.”
The city allocated $3.75 million to build the facility from the parks bond, approved by voters in November 2009.
Coleman said it won’t be enough.
“It’s not going to go far unless you add a couple million to it. I think $5 million would be about right,” he said.
The $1.2 million for the church land came from a windfall from the bond, Sinclair said, which has earned $1.6 million more than expected, and doesn’t take away from previously budgeted items.
Sinclair said the church property has multiple advantages.
“It’s adjacent to Custer Park,” he said about a soccer field, where overflow parking is easily absorbed by the church lot. “It has a large gymnasium and a lot of meeting space.”
Sinclair said the only effect on the existing site is to remove a gymnasium from its future design because the church property already has one.
“Nothing has changed about the city’s commitment to Elizabeth Porter. It’s going to be the premier community center for the entire city. It’s going to be in a prominent location,” he said.
Marietta resident the Rev. Walter D. Moon served on the 16-member Citizens Advisory Committee for Marietta Parks that made recommendations throughout 2010.
For years, he said, committee members have been frustrated by a lack of forward movement.
“We felt while we were still a committee the council was not acting expeditiously,” Moon said. “Even though they didn’t have to accept our recommendations, we felt they were dragging their feet.”
He said the committee worked hard on suggestions for the Lawrence Street Community Center’s $1.1 million renovation.
“We made good recommendations to the council and, of course, nothing has been done,” Moon said.
Coleman said he feared Custer Park may leapfrog ahead of referendum projects.
“Our first priority should be Elizabeth Porter and Lawrence Street,” Coleman said, citing the latter’s leaky roof. “Those are on the list we were supposed to move forward on. Here we are, four years later.”
Sinclair said the church property is an addition, not a replacement, which required quick action to keep its 150 parking spaces from falling into others’ hands.
“For us, it made a lot of sense because it’s a huge chunk of land adjacent to our park that’s already being used for a park purpose,” he said about the 4-acre site.
The real estate deal, said Sinclair, a Realtor, was an opportunity that “dropped in our laps.”
“When a great deal comes along that fits in, when somebody offers you a property at a phenomenal price as a good steward of taxpayer money, you should stop and look at it,” he said. “Because of the economy, sometimes great opportunities present themselves and we need to be ready to act on them.”
The committee was disbanded more than two years ago, on Jan. 13, 2011.
Moon said he still feels the sting from being told by the City Council the committee was no longer needed.
“There was some speculation from committee members that we gave them more oversight than what they really wanted,” he said. “The council wanted to have it their way. They felt more comfortable if we didn’t exist. We got kicked to the curb.”
Not so, said Mayor Steve Tumlin.
“It had a shelf life from the get-go,” he said. “It was to get us on the right track, to give us input.”
Parks and Recreation Director Rich Buss agreed.
“The original assignment was for one year. They made a final report of their findings, and the council moved on from there,” he said about a Dec. 8, 2010, presentation.
Buss said the potential existed to extend the committee.
“It could have been renewed, but it was not. If the council decided their services were needed longer, they could have established another term,” he said.
Tumlin said the committee served its purpose.
“We got the input we thought we needed,” he said.
Committee member Michelle Cooper Kelly said voters still need a watchdog looking out for their interests, especially since the referendum passed by a slim 51 percent.
“The uniqueness in this referendum was the parks were listed. The allocations were there, and that’s what voters voted on,” she said. “If the intent was not to follow what the taxpayers wanted, then we should never have put out an itemized list.”
While Aviation Sports Complex and Hickory Hills Park were renovated as promised, Kelly said the city must be held accountable for the other 19 improvements.
“To not have done anything with the $25 million bond, that’s negligence,” she said.
Kelly said the church property doesn’t count.
“I think it’s a great buy for the city, but that’s not what the citizens voted on,” she said.