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Hall commissioners OK $300K for park without consulting oversight committee
Some citizens, invited at board's request, question their role and project
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A banner indicates to visitors plans for upcoming renovations to the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue. Some members of the SPLOST citizen review committee are skeptical about the Board of Commissioners approving the allocation of $300,000 in special purpose local option sales tax revenue, or SPLOST VII, for renovations to the venue. - photo by Erin O. Smith

SPLOST VII citizen review committee

Mark Pettitt — Chairman of the Hall County Library System Board of Trustees

Doug Aiken — The most frequent resident attendee at county Board of Commissioners meetings

Brent Hoffman — Commercial real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway in Gainesville

Richard Horne — Leader on the commission that created the city of Johns Creek

Carol Werner — Former auditor with Ernst & Young

Brian Gracey — Pedigree in construction management

Mark Bell — Certified public accountant at the Kelly & Bell firm in Gainesville

Frank Norton Jr. — CEO and chairman of the Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm

Michelle Mintz — Minister at St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville

The Hall County Board of Commissioners recently signed off on allocating $300,000 in special purpose local option sales tax revenue, or SPLOST VII, for renovations to the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue at Clarks Bridge Park.

But that expenditure has some members of a citizen review committee, which is charged with overseeing SPLOST VII project funding, wondering about their purpose.

“It just sprang up all of the sudden,” said Murrayville resident Doug Aiken, a member of the committee. “And I’m not sure that’s a SPLOST project.”

Fighting the perception that special purpose local option sales tax revenue had become a slush fund for pet projects and corporate interests drove Hall County officials, in part, to establish a citizens advisory committee this year to review SPLOST VII expenditures.

That committee held its first meeting in July, but its role remained somewhat undefined.

“Does it have any authority?” asked Frank Norton Jr., president and CEO of The Norton Agency and a member of the citizens committee.

It may be too soon to tell whether the committee is a true watchdog or merely a sounding board.

Teetering in ambiguity could jeopardize any goodwill resulting from the creation of the committee. After all, it was spurred by previous examples of bad spending.

The 1 percent sales tax has funded everything from parks and public works projects to public safety operations and building construction over many years.

But it’s also been used for things never vetted by voters, such as costs for the proposed Glades Reservoir in North Hall, and the purchase of a new fire truck to replace one involved in an accident that injured three firefighters last year.

Typically, local government has stipulated only broad categories available for SPLOST funding, such as roads and buildings, giving ample leeway to spend money on projects never imagined.

Such was the case with the funding allocated to the Olympic venue, which the citizen committee has yet to review.

“While we didn’t specifically say this money would be earmarked for them … we knew they were going to have a request,” said Commissioner Jeff Stowe.

The Olympic venue fell into disrepair in recent years, but the nonprofit Gainesville-Hall ’96 Foundation is working to revive the legacy of the venue that hosted kayaking and rowing events during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. The venue is the last event site from those games still being used for its original purpose.

Gainesville-Hall ’96 board Chairwoman Mimi Collins said the first phase of a $7 million to $10 million master plan is underway.

The $300,000 in SPLOST funds will be spent on constructing an Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible ramp to the tower, as well as upgrades to restrooms and expansions to the service facility.

Half the allocated funding will be doled out this fall once the venue's audit has been approved. The remaining half will be distributed in February 2016.

Stowe said a second component of the audit includes reviewing how much has been spent on capital improvements to the venue so far.

Former Commissioner Craig Lutz, who was still serving when the SPLOST VII projects list was being developed, said he never considered funding the Olympic venue with this revenue.

While Lutz is OK with spending SPLOST VII funds on the public portion of Clarks Bridge Park, so long as the citizens committee approves it, he does not support propping up the venue.

“What is the point of the citizen review committee if not to approve this kind of expenditure?” he added. “I never contemplated that park money would go to the rowing venue.”

Hall County and Gainesville have provided the financial backbone, providing several hundred thousand dollars in funding over the past few years.

But officials have said they do not want to remain the main backer of the venue going forward.

For example, Stowe said he would like to lower funding to about $50,000 in the coming years, or about the cost of annual maintenance of Clarks Bridge Park.

“We’re moving them toward that,” he added.

Collins said the foundation is also ramping up its fundraising campaigns, collecting individual donations and applying for grant money, and that public funds also support aspects of the park that are not related to the venue.

“And bringing non-sports events, like weddings and concerts, to the venue helps bolster the operations budget,” Collins said.

“I think this is a unique opportunity using public and private funds to really be able to bring a park like that up to an incredible asset for all citizens,” she added. “I think we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

But with the huge investment being made to bring the venue back to life, it could be some time before it becomes financially self-sustaining.

And the full weight of the venue’s impact on the local economy might not hit until then.

“When it comes to economic development, I don’t know if I ever believe the numbers that are thrown out there …” Stowe said.

But Stowe also said that the venue and park provide other social and cultural benefits that cannot be quantified.

“I do really believe it is a treasure we have,” he added.

In the meantime, members of the citizen review committee expect to take a closer look at the Olympic venue funding, even if they remain skeptical about the committee’s role going forward.

“I’m not sure the role we’re going to play,” Aiken said. “It appears we don’t have really any authority.”

Norton believes the committee will earn its stripes with each passing meeting, beginning with the next one sometime later this month.

“In time, it will be part of the process,” he added.

 

SPLOST VII citizen review committee

Mark Pettitt — Chairman of the Hall County Library System Board of Trustees

Doug Aiken — The most frequent resident attendee at county Board of Commissioners meetings

Brent Hoffman — Commercial real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway in Gainesville

Richard Horne — Leader on the commission that created the city of Johns Creek

Carol Werner — Former auditor with Ernst & Young

Brian Gracey — Pedigree in construction management

Mark Bell — Certified public accountant at the Kelly & Bell firm in Gainesville

Frank Norton Jr. — CEO and chairman of the Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm

Michelle Mintz — Minister at St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville

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