City Commission unites on three capital spending priorities

Gary B. Gray • Jan 22, 2012 at 6:44 AM

There are some well-known sayings out there that could be applied to Johnson City’s Capital Investment Plan: “Money talks,” etc., “If you build it, they will come,” and “Time is of the essence.”

Johnson City commissioners, administrators, department heads, planners, staff members and architects pushed through a three-hour meeting Thursday to sort out how much money was and/or will be available for certain capital improvements. Not only is that number a moving target, so are the prioritized projects and the parts and pieces within each of them.

Though there are many projects and fixes that warrant immediate attention, three priorities emerged Thursday, and each commissioner, as well as City Manager Pete Peterson, preferred slightly different strategies for the Memorial Park campus, Cardinal Park and Freedom Hall Civic Center.

“It’s going to be an excruciatingly tight budget next year, and I don’t know how much debt we can incur without raising taxes,” Peterson said.

He said there will be between $500,000 to $750,000 that can be used from money left over from the construction of Memorial Park Community Center. The contract includes the center, tennis courts and a road leading to the center from East Main Street.

“With all the time and effort we’ve put into the community center, it would be a waste not to improve that campus,” said Mayor Jeff Banyas.

Architect Tony Street presented various stages of design for the area around the center, which includes an amphitheater, veterans memorial/history park complete with original Doughboy, a possible landscaped labyrinth, brick columns with wrought iron fencing, racquetball courts and a concrete walkway that guides visitors not only around the park but to and from its features.

Street said a ballpark price for the entire package is about $1.6 million. Following Peterson’s recommendation that the city “get going” on this, commissioners weighed in.

“If you move the Doughboy, we’re going to see torches and pitchforks,” Commissioner Clayton Stout said.

Street said the fence along Bert and Main streets would cost about $350,000. The amphitheater, which could be used for some downtown events, Parks and Recreation activities and other community events, would cost between $300,000 to $400,000, and the concrete walkways would run about $237,000.

Stout said the city should get a bid to complete the entire project; others disagreed.

“With money being what it is, I’m not real comfortable building the whole thing out at one time,” said Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin.

In the end, Street was asked to work up per-item costs on the walkway, fencing and the stabilization of the memorial area.

Another top priority is Cardinal Park, where the needs are many, according to Minor League Baseball standards. But with money being tight, the city is trying to do what it can to address the issues it can afford.

Peterson said the following as discussion wrapped up on preferred fixes at the home of the Johnson City Cardinals, the Appalachian League champs in 2010 and 2011: “Completely ignoring the wish list of Minor League Baseball, this should get us there.”

That “wish list” was a facility survey by Kansas City, Mo.-based Gould Evans Associates conducted in July and sent in September to the commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball in New York. The results showed the facility was not in compliance with a number of Professional Baseball Agreement standards.

The survey shows Cardinal Park does not have adequate seating capacity, lighting, playing surface quality, security, toilets, concessions, and bullpen and dugout amenities. It does not have a public drinking fountain. Neither is the field “without defects or trip hazards that could jeopardize player safety,” according to the survey.

About one month ago, the city was looking at a $1 million price tag to replace the playing surface, building a new left-field wall, replacing light poles, batting cage netting, electrical and other work and adding a streetscape project near the park’s entrance.

That dropped to a roughly $163,000 price to tear down and replace the left-field fence only. When that bid was deemed too high, Street put out requests for bids to get a lower price.

“The bids are due back next week, and we will be considering them at the first City Commission meeting in February,” Street said.

Meanwhile, Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl reported he has received a $17,000 bid to redo the field, which means money saved on the original $25,000 estimate.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the in-house streetscape project would cost about $225,500 but that it would be this fall before workers could begin that project.

“This price includes $75,000 for fencing that would be brick columns and wrought iron along Legion Street and the old Lonnie Lowe Lane, which will become a pedestrian area and parking lot entrance,” he said. “By doing this we’ll be filling in the entire exterior of the right side of the park. We also included the cost of a ticket office.”

Pindzola also said that when this work is done, plumbing needs should be taken care of that reach into rest rooms and other structures at the facility.

“Right now, in my book it looks ... well, junky. You’ve got some junk out there.”

Meanwhile, Freedom Hall easily made it into the city’s top three priority list.

Tommy Burleson, the city’s construction agent, said the cost of needed improvements at Freedom Hall total about $5 million.

“The structure was built in the early 1970s, and there are a lot of issues out there,” he said. “There are structural issues, it needs a new power and electrical system, and the HVAC system is failing. All the air-handling equipment is way past its life span, especially the equipment in the pool area.”

Burleson said needed improvements at Freedom Hall also include a new access (doors) control system, additional paving, reworking of the exterior brick and new steps leading to the cafeteria.

For now, officials will be looking at the cost of replacing all electric and cabling, a new sprinkler system and the HVAC system. When combined, these two projects would cost an estimated $1.6 million.

Vice Mayor Phil Carriger agreed the facility needed immediate attention, but he remained firm in his request to have city officials bring to commissioners an updated list of all activities and an inventory of all equipment and fixtures.

Carriger strongly suggested looking at whether the business model — how the facility is used and what revenues are derived — is still a valid one and what alternatives were viable, including a possible partnership with Washington County to create a new facility.

“It’s an essential piece of the middle school,” Peterson said. “They have assemblies, classrooms, swimming. When they have major events there, the whole community benefits economically. But it looks like the only way we can do this is to do it in phases.”

After much discussion, commissioners agreed with Carriger. City staff will now begin work on a full-blown presentation that includes the current business model.

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