My View – February 2015

This year, our City Council must weigh the importance of and address several challenges including the Courthouse, the Jacksonville Dam, the need for a new Fire Station and updating the Comprehensive Plan and Urban Growth Boundary.

On the Courthouse: the decision to move city offices into the historic building is seen by many as a positive means of re-purposing the building and returning it to public use. The last City Council voted to appropriate up to $1 million of Urban Renewal funds to restore and repurpose the building. While I generally like the idea of repurposing historic buildings, especially when it results in preservation, I still maintain that a more visionary approach would be finding a for-profit partner to lease or purchase the property as a corporate headquarters/campus complex. In private hands, the project would be better funded and serve as a springboard to redevelop the 5th Street corridor. I still maintain that using the building for city offices is a gross underutilization of the property and fear the actual cost of conversion of the ground floor alone will exceed $2 million. Based on a recently-released “Update on Project Fund Financials” memo drafted by staff, (available here), the city has spent $111,500 on Courthouse-related repairs/improvements. Although some restoration work was mandatory maintenance, other work is being done without the benefit of a fully-developed restoration plan with “hard” engineering or seismic upgrade cost estimates. Another missing link is significant: whether or not the State Historic Preservation Office will approve of an outdoor elevator or require a significantly more expensive indoor elevator to be installed. Moving forward on this project absent this critical information is financially ill-advised.

On the Dam: with some cost estimates now ranging from $500,000 to $700,000 to remove Jacksonville’s aging dam and spillway, the incomplete project remains our number one priority. Although costs were originally estimated at nearly half this number, the city should not allocate funds for another major project, including the Courthouse, until the dam and spillway removal is complete. To date, the city has expended $49,000 on dam-related expenses, the majority on required engineering and environmental analyses. Although money could be tapped from other city funds to complete the removal, there is talk of seeking grant funding to partially pay for the project. Please recall that the city netted $680,000 from the City/MRA Jacksonville Watershed land swap—funds that are now being tapped for other purposes. Also note that a main reason used to justify that sale in the first place was using the proceeds for the dam removal. Recently, the City Council allocated $150,000 of those MRA proceeds for the Courthouse project and another $263,000 to pay off the internal City loan on the Police Department building. These funds were allocated, in-part, based upon inaccurate estimates of the dam removal project. The bottom line is that $413,000 of the MRA money has been earmarked for other uses—money that in my view should have been placed in a lockbox for the project.

On a Fire Station: Many in the silent majority believe building a new firehouse is a more responsible use of our limited Urban Renewal funds. Due to the real possibility that the existing brick fire station may crumble in a large seismic event, it’s time to discuss re-directing those funds back to this higher-priority project. Assuming council continues down the Courthouse path, however, it should, at a minimum, create a long-range plan to insure a new fire station is built by the year 2022.

On growth: like it or not, the City is under a state mandate to plan for growth and should fast-track updating our Comprehensive Plan with an emphasis on development meeting multiple needs. In my view, the city should select the land parcel known as JK-1 as its expansion area—the one providing the best long-term solution for transportation, housing and commercial growth needs. As a bonus, it also provides the best location for a new fire house. With plan updates needed, the city should invest funds from next year’s budget (2015/16) to complete this 1-2 year process by contracting with outside planning consultants to guide this effort through Jackson County and state channels. Additionally, council should begin a thorough design analysis of the 5th Street Gateway leading into Downtown, an area requiring investment to provide a more dynamic and pleasing entrance to town. The area contains vacant and underutilized land parcels and buildings requiring economic incentives to make development more attractive for both commercial and residential development.

As always, I welcome your comments on My View and wish you all the best in Our Small Town with Big Atmosphere!