For several years, the Limestone County Event Center has been an albatross around the neck of the Limestone County Commission.
Former Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee hated the building so much — and the controversy it created — that he once referred to it as the “hemorrhoid center.”
In addition to not being that popular with the community, the indoor acoustics are awful. The brick walls and exposed industrial ceiling almost ensure you'll hear next to nothing from anyone speaking through a microphone. It's also alternately either too hot or too cold in the building. And when the massive heating and cooling unit activates, it sounds like a small explosion.
Prior to being purchased by the county, the event center, at 110 W. Pryor St. in Athens, was a 20,000-square-foot warehouse used by Pilgrim's Pride for storage. Limestone County paid $130,000 for the building in 2007. It took $2 million to renovate the event center, and it should be noted it's not an unattractive building.
The center opened in September 2010 and got off to a shaky start. Vandals spray-painted graffiti on the building just two weeks after it opened.
Before and after the event center opened, there was plenty of criticism about the project, some of it valid. Owners and operators of privately owned event centers came to County Commission meetings to rightfully question commissioners about why the government was competing with free enterprise.
Also, shortly after the center opened, a few events were granted special-use on-premises alcohol licenses, which allowed beer and wine to be sold to event attendees. Representatives from Athens First Baptist Church expressed concerns about imbibing patrons using the church's parking lot.
Despite all these negatives, the event center has worked well to accommodate large crowds for a variety of events, including the State of the County addresses and fundraisers for various philanthropic and social clubs. However, it can be argued there are other venues where such events could be held, including privately owned event centers.
However, the building is costly. The fiscal year 2019-2020 event center budget projects expenses of $133,000, with utilities encompassing $98,000 of that amount.
There is no denying the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives needs more room. The antique building it occupies is also owned by the county and has experienced its share of issues over the years, including a leaky roof that came close to damaging some artifacts.
Moving to the event center would allow the museum to display more artifacts, including some the public hasn't seen because there's simply no room to show them. It may also enable the museum to complete some long-term plans, including the addition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) efforts at the museum and provide hands-on experiences to students.
We believe and encourage the commission to give serious consideration to selling the event center to the museum for a nominal fee, even if for only $1. In exchange for such a generous gesture, the commission may choose to discontinue or drastically reduce its annual appropriation to the museum.
Jerry Crabtree, president, of the museum's board of directors, acknowledged the museum had saved $500,000 as part of a capital campaign to build a new museum. However, he explained the museum board would like to use those funds on architectural fees and construction expenses related to converting the wide-open event center into museum space.
Crabtree also told commissioners Wednesday 12,000 people had visited the museum last year. He predicted that number could grow if provided a newer, larger facility.
More visitors to the museum means more people visiting Athens and Limestone County and spending money on food, gasoline and trinkets. That means more money staying at the local level.
For those who have never been to the museum, it truly is a wonderful destination. A sea of artifacts paint a wonderful portrait of brave men and women from Limestone County and beyond.
Even better, the museum is free to visitors. However, charging a nominal admission is a route the museum may want to consider taking, especially if the commission decides to discontinue its appropriations.
Whether or not a deal is struck with the commission, we hope county governments continue to support the museum verbally and financially. It serves as a wonderful tribute to veterans, both living and deceased, and deserves the support of all Limestone Countians.