By Kim West
Two Limestone residents voiced their displeasure with a resolution on Monday’s County Commission agenda to allocate up to $25,000 to Athens State University for preliminary architectural renderings to renovate Carter Hall as the basis for a convention center complex.
Nancy Morton, a local resident, and Glenn Hall, owner of Yesterdays Event Center in the Reid community, questioned using taxpayer money to pay for architectural services of the proposed civic center on the ASU campus when the county already has the Limestone County Event Center on Pryor Street, which opened in September 2010.
The LCEC is a 20,000-square foot facility that can handle up to 1,000 people, and hosts events ranging from proms to the Home & Garden Show. It is not designed to host conferences or large-scale tradeshows.
Commissioners Gary Daly, Steve Turner, Bill Latimer and Ben Harrison unanimously approved the county’s share for the $75,000 budgeted renderings, contingent on $25,000 apiece from ASU and the city of Athens. The City Council has not finalized the agenda for its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
“This is our money,” said Morton when she briefly addressed the commission about a civic complex that she said would not benefit county residents directly.
Hall urged the commissioners to allow ASU to bear the funding responsibility of creating a complex that could include a theater, conference center, exhibit hall and arena.
“It’s my guess that ASU will renovate Carter Gymnasium with or without funding from the County Commission or the city of Athens,” Hall said. “But if it’s true what the (ASU) President (Dr. Bob Glenn) said — that this project needs the partnership of the city and this County Commission to become a reality — then you are talking about taxpayer dollars, so we have the right to be included in funding discussions … the County Commission has the responsibility to decide whether subsidizing Athens State University with $8.5 million is going to produce $8.5 million in benefits for the residents.”
Hall predicted if the commission went along with the preliminary renderings that it would also be eventually responsible for a third of the total construction cost, which he estimated at $25.5 million.
Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee disputed the relevance of Hall’s project numbers because the construction cost has not been determined. He told Hall that the renderings — which would provide a cost analysis and an early image of the interior design and exterior work needed for the project — were not “full drawings” and only a preliminary step without a commitment from the county to provide any additional money.
Pam Jarrett, assistant director of development for ASU, also spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting. She noted that the driving force behind the proposed project is to draw “4,000 people to Athens, and not just 1,000” with smaller events. She used the Fiddlers Convention held each year in October at ASU as a primary example of an event that takes place on campus that benefits the Athens and Limestone community in terms of generated revenue and bringing out-of-towners to the area. She also said the event could use a venue to stage events indoors in case of inclement weather.
“We’re very excited to have Athens State University as the lifeblood of this community,” said Jarrett, who cited a 2010 ASU study that found the university has an $180 million economic impact on the local economy.
The commission will hold a 10 a.m. work session Wednesday, Aug. 14, at the Washington Street annex, and agreed to move the next regular meeting to 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 16, at the Clinton Street courthouse annex because a majority of the commission will be out of town Aug. 19.