December 17, 2009
|City Jumps In Deep With Aquatic Center|
Greensboro is going to get a brand new, state-of-the-art aquatic center with a 50-meter pool, a warm up pool and a diving well designed to host international swimming meets.
It's going to cost the city at least $18.8 million to build, and about $150,000 a year to operate, but the majority on the Greensboro City Council voted in favor of building the pool on Tuesday, Dec. 15, despite the cost of construction and the cost of operation, and that is how the democratic system works.
There was never any doubt that the votes were there to approve the contract and the funding mechanism for the pool. The pool will be paid for with $12 million in parks and recreation bonds passed in November 2008, and the city will borrow the rest of the money until 2011, when some hotel-motel tax money designated for use at the Coliseum becomes available and will be used to pay off the $6.8 million extra cost.
Much of the recent controversy was a result of the former City Council holding a special meeting 90 minutes before leaving office, simply to approve the three-pool, 72,000-square-foot aquatic center and hand the new council – with four new members – a project that was $6.8 million over budget. Some new members, including Councilmember Nancy Vaughan, who voted in favor of the pool, said it was unfair to put such a burden on the new council when the new members had not even had a chance to look at it. So at its organizational meeting on Dec. 1, the new council voted to re-vote on the aquatic center at its first regular meeting, Dec. 15.
To his credit, Councilmember Zack Matheny, who was reelected to serve a second term, apologized for being part of holding that last minute special called meeting. He said that no insult of the new city councilmembers was intended but that the old council, especially former City Councilmember Mike Barber, had taken the project so far and they were so close that it seemed to make sense to finish it.
Those who voted for the aquatic center were Councilmembers Matheny, Vaughan, Dianne Bellamy-Small, Robbie Perkins and Jim Kee.
Those opposed to the method of funding the new pool were Mayor Bill Knight and Councilmembers Trudy Wade, Mary Rakestraw and Danny Thompson. This is a split that was evident at the council retreat Friday, Dec. 11 and Saturday, Dec. 12, and is likely to be seen on many hot issues in the coming two years.
Perkins said he had been working on getting this pool built for 10 years, and he had. The voters of Greensboro twice voted down bond referendums for free-standing aquatic centers suitable for holding regional swimming meets. This time there was an end around the voters, as well as some members of the City Council.
Most of the many speakers who spoke in favor of the pool talked about how great it would be to have a state-of-the-art swimming and diving facility in Greensboro. As you would expect most were involved with swimming. A few really stood out. One was Eugene Godsoe, a captain of the Stanford University swimming team who recently competed in the Olympic trials. He is an impressive young man and talked about the life lessons that swimming had taught him. He is an extremely successful swimmer who grew up in Greensboro.
Also speaking were divers who now practice in Greensboro without a pool. It sounds crazy and impossible, but evidently they manage to do it extremely well. It will be interesting to see how Coach Scott Lineberry's team does when the divers practice by actually diving into water.
It was an interesting discussion because the opponents were for the most part not opposed to a swimming facility but wanted one that could be built for the $12 million that the voters had approved. Or wanted the issue to go back before the voters to approve an additional $7 million in bonds. Some proponents talked of cost overruns, but it is hardly a cost overrun when a project comes in almost 60 percent above its funding stream.
Thompson noted it was the process that bothered him. Wade said she was not against the pool at the $12 million price the voters approved. She said if the pool was going to cost $6.8 million more than the bonds then it should go back to the voters for approval.
The project did grow. On May 5, 2009, Greensboro Coliseum Manager Matt Brown told the City Council that Greensboro did not need a Cadillac pool but could build a good regional facility of about 44,000 square feet that might normally cost $15 million for $12 million because of the economy. It sounded like a good plan and Wade actually made the motion to go ahead with the proposal.
What happened is that somewhere in there, Brown and the others in charge of designing the pool decided that Greensboro did need a Cadillac, or perhaps a Jaguar. And they decided that a regional swim facility was not enough, and that Greensboro needed a facility that was capable of holding national and international swimming meets.
Barber, who is no longer on the City Council, said what was driving the upgrades was the opportunity to hold the Atlantic Coast Conference championships if the pool was built to the required specifications. They decided to go for it, even though the funding stream was a little iffy, and it worked.
So what had been sold to the voters as a parks and recreation pool grew into a regional facility and then grew again into a national and international facility, all without a vote of the people. The City Council did approve the jump to a regional facility, but they had been told it could be built for $12 million or a little more. There is just no way that $18.8 million is a little more than $12 million, and there is no way that this is a regional facility. They are already talking about attracting national and international meets, which is the kind of facility that the voters of Greensboro had voted down twice. But it is what Brown and President of the Greensboro Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Henri Fourrier want, because it brings people to town.
One of the speakers was Hill Carrow, the chairman of the US Figure Skating Championships, talking about how much money that event will bring in when it takes place in Greensboro in 2011, although it doesn't have much to do with swimming.
Tuesday night, Wade made a motion to send the pool funding plan back to the voters to see if the voters wanted to spend an additional $7 million on the proposed national grade swimming facility. That motion was voted down by a 5-to-4 vote, the same vote on all the pool votes, with Knight, Wade, Rakestraw and Thompson voting for a May bond referendum and Bellamy-Small, Matheny, Vaughan, Perkins and Kee voting against it.
There was never any doubt that the swimming community was in favor of this pool, but four councilmembers questioned whether this is what the majority of the voters of Greensboro had in mind when they voted for a $12 million parks and recreation bond. Thompson questioned whether a parks and recreation bond could be used by the Greensboro Coliseum. It is a different department, but his question got cut off by the three-minute time limit councilmembers had imposed on themselves.
Because of the time limit and the decision that they could each only speak once, Kee, a new councilmember, ended up speaking first at his first regular meeting on what was an extremely controversial topic. Everybody knew how the council was going to vote, so there wasn't much need for councilmembers to speak at length about the topic, but it is rare for councilmembers not to get to speak in the order that they chose. There are definitely some bugs to be worked out of the process, but overall the meeting moved along pretty well.
During the break after the vote, Perkins noted that Thompson should have been able to get his questions answered without having to give up his three minutes. Unfortunately for Thompson he was trying to get answers out of Greensboro Finance Director Rick Lusk – who holds on to answers for as long as possible – and in this case the clock was ticking so Thompson never got to make his point.
It is an interesting question that should be answered. How can parks and recreation bonds be spent by the Coliseum? Could Coliseum bonds be spent by parks and recreation? Or could transportation bonds be spent by water resources? It would appear that is the case.
But it is all water under the diving board now. The pool will be built. Wade, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of spending the additional $6.8 million without voter approval, said after the vote, "We're in the pool business now. I'm hoping we get every event we can."
The downside of the vote is not the pool, which should be a fantastic facility, but the trust of the voters. Those voters who went to the polls to approve a $12 million Parks and Recreation Department pool have to feel like they have been tricked, and the next time the City Council puts a bond on the ballot the voters may not be so willing to approve it.
Now that the vote is done, it is easier to see why the old council was so intent on taking that last step. There is only one politician around here who could pull off taking a community parks and recreation pool priced at $12 million and turning it into an Olympic trials venue priced at $18.8 million, and that is Barber, who is now retired from the City Council.
Barber and Perkins disagreed on a lot while they served together on the City Council, but when they got together on a project like the aquatic center it almost always happened. If they are looking for a name, the Mike Barber Natatorium has a nice ring to it.
This was Knight's first regular meeting and he did good job of running the show for his debut out on the track. Councilmembers filled in for him when he forgot to call for a vote. It's difficult to run a meeting the first time if you have been sitting in the co-pilot's seat for a few years, but to come in cold and run a meeting is a real challenge.
The evening started for councilmembers with the official photo shoot at 4:30 p.m., and ended with the meeting adjourning at 11:45 p.m.
Right off the bat the council broke one of the rules it set for itself at the retreat, which was not to engage speakers from the floor in discussion. Vaughan explained to the council about a speaker's problems on Michaux Road off Battleground Avenue, some of which were created by the Planning Board. City Manager Rashad Young said that he would investigate the matter. Matheny said, "I hope it doesn't take you as long to get answers as it has taken me."
On item 7, which is the rezoning and comprehensive plan amendment for the property near the intersection of North Elm Street and East Cornwallis Drive, Vaughan had to abstain because her husband, state Sen. Don Vaughan, represented the neighbors, and Perkins had to abstain because he owns a portion of the property. It is going to be interesting if a couple more councilmembers get involved in rezoning, as the council may not have enough votes to pass a motion. In this case the matter was continued until Jan. 5.
The city did annex and zone land for the Gateway University Research Park on Lee Street.
The state is taking over the certification process for the Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) program, which means businesses don't have to be certified in every jurisdiction, and that Greensboro doesn't have to worry about certifying businesses anymore.
Wade asked if that meant they could reduce the staff in the MWBE Department, since those who certified MWBEs would not have to do so, and Young said, no, that they still had plenty to do in that department.
So now the taxpayers are paying state employees to certify MWBEs and still paying the employees who were certifying MWBEs for Greensboro.
The City Council moved some stimulus money along by applying to the state for some so-called shovel-ready projects, which include the proposed hotel at South Elm and Lee streets.