The Athens City Council was split Monday on how to fund the relocation of Jimmy Gill Park, and the decision did not sit well with the council president and at least one resident.
It was a 2-2 vote on a proposal to transfer $600,000 from the city's alcohol fund to help cover expenses related to the park. The city moved the park when Toyota Boshoku purchased 42 acres along West Sanderfer Road for a new manufacturing facility expected to hire more than 400 workers.
As part of the project agreement, Toyota Boshoku offered $300,000 to the city to help cover expenses related to moving the park to another location. City Councilman Harold Wales said he was under the impression the $300,000 would cover the cost of the park's relocation. He added he couldn't vote to spend an additional $600,000 because it was just too much.
“I want to see the park put back exactly the way it was on Sanderfer Road,” he said. “I'm not sure how much money we can put into a community park without having an endgame. … I'm going to request we have further discussion about this.”
Council President Frank Travis, whose district includes the park, urged Wales and Councilman Wayne Harper to reconsider. Harper said his “no” vote had nothing to do with where the park was located, but — like Wales — said he was led to believe the $300,000 would cover the park costs.
“We promised District 3 we would restore (the park) and make it better than it was,” Travis said. “I understand the pros and cons against it, but District 3 gave no pushback (on moving the park). I promised my district we would put Jimmy Gill Park back and it would be a park they could be proud of.”
Mayor Ronnie Marks told the council there was never a thought the $300,000 would cover the entirety of moving the park. He said he could have asked for more from Toyota Boshoku to relocate the park, but it may have killed the development deal and the prospect of adding jobs.
“We will try to put this park back the best we can,” he said.
In May, the council approved the purchase of a 60-acre tract on Hine Street for $1 million. About five acres of the property, the former Woodland Golf Course, will be used for the new Jimmy Gill Park. The remaining acreage will be designated for potential industrial development.
The mayor met with Public Works Director James Rich and Taz Morell of Morell Engineering to narrow down costs. Members of the Jimmy Gill Park Committee also met with residents who will live near the new park and had input on the design of the park. Marks said some of those residents had suggestions, including making sure the park was well-lit at night.
“It may not be the best location, but it's the location this committee went forward with,” Marks said.
Council members asked about equipment and a pavilion at the original park. Marks said some of the equipment had been salvaged, but the pavilion was not. He said there would also be costs related to rebuilding an all-purpose field and basketball court.
“I hope you don't drive a wedge in this community because of this action, and I ask you to reconsider sometime in the near future,” Marks told the council after the vote. “We have designed a park that will be close to this dollar amount.”
Athens resident David Malone, a longtime friend of the park's namesake and late city councilman, chided the council over its split vote. He also noted if the council had filled the vacant District 4 seat, there wouldn't have been a split vote.
The seat has been empty since it was vacated by Joseph Cannon, who was elected Limestone County license commissioner. Wales, the former council president, announced the seat would not be filled because it was too close to the August municipal election.
“I don't know why you oppose this. You've opposed a lot of things in District 3. Thank God other council members came along and got it done,” Malone said. “This lets us know that seat should have been filled. You are all city council members and you are voted on by your districts, but you should look out for the entire city and some of you don't do that all the time.”
Malone told Wales if there was a “Mickey Mouse house” being built in Canebrake, the councilman would vote for it. Wales is a Canebrake resident and represents the exclusive east Athens neighborhood on the council.
District 1 Councilman Chris Seibert said the council should reconsider funding the relocation of the park because it made a commitment to put the park back.
“You always hope these types of projects don't go over what you think, but they do,” he said. “Everything you build that's $1 million-plus has overruns, but it's not a reason not to do it.”