Commerce City Council members faced a packed room during last week's town hall meeting about the future of the city’s parks and recreation department.
It was a marathon of a meeting — lasting about 3 hours — during which a number of people spoke against a proposal to turn over the city’s rec department to the Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department.
The city has not made a decision on whether it will move forward with the proposed merger. A second town hall meeting is planned this Saturday (March 11) at 11 a.m. at the Commerce Civic Center.
City leaders have been working over the past several years on plans to expand the city's recreation department. Mayor Clark Hill said the city’s intention initially was to buy land and build new facilities.
Hill said the city first started looking at city-owned property on Smallwood Dr. But there isn’t enough buildable land for an expansion there and the neighboring property owners weren’t willing to sell.
The city then looked at buying an alternative property, 70-80 acres at the corner of Whitehill School Rd. When the city hired an engineer for the expansion, it learned the estimated cost to build additional facilities would be $20-$30 million.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Hill said of the higher-than-expected price tag.
The city also looked to completely redo Veteran’s Park, but learned the cost to do that would be in the same $2-$30 million range.
On top of those steep capital costs, an expanded program would require more operational funding beyond the city’s current $568,000 annual budget. Of that, around $75,000 comes from recreation fees, the rest from city general funds.
To build new facilities would mean a tax hike in the city to pay for bond funding and to pay for additional ongoing operational expenses.
“It comes down to, do we want to partner with somebody…,” Hill said. “Or do we want to stay in the rec business and make a significant investment in our kids and absorb some kind of tax increase because there’s no way for us to stay in the rec business without some kind of increase in revenue stream.”
Because of the steep price tag, city officials met with several county leaders to see if the county could play a role in the city’s need to expand its facilities and programs. The result of those meetings is a draft proposal to be used as a possible framework for an intergovernmental agreement between the city and county.
Essentially, the two-page document calls for the city to turn over all its recreation parks and equipment to the county recreation department and to pay the county $500,000 over two years to operate recreation facilities and programs in the city.
In addition, the city would agree to retain $1 million from its SPLOST 7 recreation money for the county to use to help pay for upgrade facilities.
The county would honor the city’s agreement with the city schools for use of the ballfields for two years and retain the use of the Tigers mascot with the city’s youth football and cheerleading programs, per league rules. It would also retain the name “Tiger Sharks” for the Commerce swim team program.
Hill said the county would also plan to locate new facilities in or around the city.
As far as the kids who play rec sports, county rec director Ricky Sanders told the crowd at Commerce's public meeting there won’t be much of a change.
“Not that much is going to change as far as your child is concerned,” Sanders said, adding that kids who play at Veterans Park or Ridling Field will still register and play at those fields.
All-star teams are still planned for various sports. Additionally, Sanders said the county doesn't plan to disrupt the city’s swim team and hope to expand the program.
(One change that would take place is a move from C Class to B Class for several sports.)
City leaders heard from about 20 residents during the town hall meeting, most of who defended the beloved city rec department and argued to not combine it with the county's rec department.
Several citizens asked that the city consider an alternative to the proposed merger. A number of recommendations were mentioned, from partnering with churches/other groups to use their facilities, or completing rec department renovations in phases instead of spending the $20-$30 million all at once.
“There are more options on this table that need to be looked at,” said Tabitha Evans.
Other citizens were critical of the city’s plan for a $9 million renovation of the city’s civic center instead of putting that money toward the rec department.
Hill noted in his overview the historic civic center building requires significant, costly repairs whether it’s renovated or not. The move to renovate the civic center and move city hall into the building will also alleviate overcrowding issues in city hall and the planning department, which are at capacity. (The city’s police department is set to move into the city hall building.)
A number of citizens who spoke referred to their personal experience with the rec department. Many said they don’t want the rec department to lose the small, close-knit community identity that’s tied to the City of Commerce.
One woman noted the benefits of having a small rec department where all the coaches and organizers know the kids by name. She questioned Sanders’ comment that not much would change for the kids.
“They have coached him. They have encouraged him. And they have worked with him. They have invested time in him,” she said of the city’s rec staff. “…That will change for my child. The director of his rec department not knowing him and not cutting up with him when he sees him somewhere will be different. And that’s part of what makes us incredibly special.”
Another citizen, Sky Gordon, echoed that, saying the relationships among parents, coaches, kids and staff is what makes the Commerce rec department unique.
Several citizens asked that the council put a pause on the merger plans and consider other options.
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