BUCKHANNON – City officials say they would use the acre of land on which the old Chase Bank drive-thru was located to construct additional restroom facilities, a picnic area, more than 40 new parking spaces and additional greenspace.
City engineer Jay Hollen presented the plan for the 1.03-acre lot on Madison Street that borders Jawbone Park at Buckhannon City Council’s Thursday meeting.
Hollen delivered the presentation prior to council voting on a larger transaction that would involve the city purchasing the lot from Citizens Bank for $200,000. In addition to transferring the property to the city, the bank will also donate $100,000 to the Stockert Youth & Community Center’s capital campaign.
The campaign, which was relaunched in December 2017, is raising funds to build a multi-functional space connected to the Stockert building that would serve as a sports venue, performing arts venue and more. In exchange for the $100,000 gift, the main arena inside the SYCC addition would be named after Citizens Bank.
Mayor David McCauley argued acquiring the property “would yield enormous benefits” to Jawbone Park patrons.
“The property along Madison Street, this real estate, exceeding an acre, is situated immediately across Madison Street from our Jawbone Park,” he said. “Dozens of new parking spaces would be realized, additional landscaping, public art and utilitarian space – involving the building located in the middle of this property – would greatly enhance events at Jawbone, our Public Safety Complex and our Stockert facility.”
The mayor noted the city already owns the large lot located just west of the old bank drive-thru lot.
Overflow restroom facilities, more parking and potential picnic space
Hollen outlined his plan for the space, saying the existing drive-thru building would remain in place but could be “retrofitted” to add additional overflow restroom facilities during Festival Fridays and other events in Jawbone Park. However, the canopies over the east and westbound drive-thru lanes would be removed.
“We were kind of envisioning this as an additional restroom facility to help supplement the overflow from Jawbone Park on Festival Fridays and other activities that may occur in Jawbone Park as well as a residential green eating area,” he said.
Hollen said the city would like to add trees and tables “to soften the aesthetics and the looks on East Lincoln Street,” and there would be two entrances into the area off Madison Street. The area would be comprised of a combination of greenspace and green permeable pavers over which motor vehicles could travel, he added.
“I envision it being one direction in off of Madison Street, so as the activities disperse in the evenings or the day, all of the traffic exits out onto East Lincoln [to] allow pedestrians access out of and across the two spaces,” Hollen said.
City public works director Jerry Arnold explained that what’s hindered Citizens Bank – and other private sector entities – from building on the lot is a large diameter sanitary sewer line that cuts through its center from East Lincoln to Madison Street, essentially carving the lot in two.
Hollen added that, in order to utilize the lot, the line and other utilities would have had to be relocated to the periphery of the property – an expensive undertaking. In addition, he noted the lot is located in the floodplain, which further limits the type of development that can occur there.
‘Not just an old brick building’
Several members of the SYCC’s Board of Directors – including Dr. Rob Rupp, Don Nestor and Pam Martin – attended Thursday’s meeting to urge council members to acquire the property as part of the overall deal.
Rupp said developing the new multi-purpose facility demonstrates the city is committed to bettering life for youth in the community.
“The Stockert Youth Center stands as testimony that this city supports its children, and I’m proud of the fact that we were not only able to save it but that it stands as a tribute, it stands as testimony that this city supports its children,” Rupp said. “It’s not just an old brick building, it’s a brick building that is a testimony to what our community does for children.”
Martin said she’s not sure the average county resident is aware of how packed-to-the-brim SYCC is on a daily basis.
“Sometimes, I think we need to put more out there from a PR standpoint,” she said. “It averages 13,000-plus youth hours a month, and I’m a walker, and every time I walk by, Stockert is a just hub and a hubbub.”
Financial concerns and getting down to the details
Several residents also attended Thursday’s meeting to express concern about the city’s financial acuity. Robyn Riggs Simons, a former council member, was one of them.
“I’m a big fan of SYCC – I think it’s a wonderful addition to the city,” Simons said, “and I fully support it, but my question is, are there conditions upon [the city] accepting the $100,000 gift from Citizens Bank [and are those conditions] that we name the arena after them and we buy the bank property?”
McCauley said yes.
Simons replied, “In my mind, that’s almost a quid pro quo any way you look at it. I don’t think there should be conditions put on them giving us a gift. It shouldn’t be put together with [the city’s $200,000] purchase of the bank lot.”
To begin council discussion on the matter, city recorder Randy Sanders made a motion to approve authorizing the execution of the purchase agreement with Citizens Bank, which councilman CJ Rylands seconded. Both Rylands and councilwoman Mary Albaugh joined the meeting by telephone.
Councilman Robbie Skinner said he strongly supports SYCC and its mission – but has concerns about the execution and details of the proposed project.
“I see the positives on both sides of this coin, and that being acquiring a piece of property that could be beneficial to us on Madison Street while also supporting Stockert Youth Center,” he said. “I think it’s a great part of our community.”
However, Skinner said developing almost anything in the floodplain can be problematic, even concrete and blacktop.
“I’d like the opportunity to develop a strategic plan to determine where this fits on the priority list of our Street Department,” he said. “It’s no secret we have several irons in the fire; we are limited with our manpower in what we have to work with. We do have a list of items that need attention across our community.”
Skinner said he’d like to see an estimate of the cost of the project when completed and encouraged council to “pump the brakes” before voting yes on the acquisition.
“What does it look like as a finished product? Can we develop a budget for that?” he asked. “And I don’t want it to be construed that I’m against Stockert Youth Center. That’s not it at all – I just want to make sure with this purchase that we have all the Ts crossed and all the Is dotted and that we’re considering everything.”
Councilwoman Pam Bucklew also described herself as “100 percent for Stockert Youth Center,” but said she didn’t think the property was worth $320,000 – the amount McCauley said it had been appraised for – to anyone except the city.
“I still believe we could get it for less than $200,000 because the bank wants to get rid of it,” she said, “and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get it, but I’m saying that we should get a better deal on it, and like Robyn said, I don’t like conditions. If someone wants to give you a gift, they’re going to give it to you.”
Bucklew said she didn’t want to dip into the city’s rainy-day fund to pay for the property – and asked where the city would borrow the money from.
City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said the city shops for the best interest rates among banks before making a decision about which entity to obtain a loan from.
‘A prime economic development opportunity’
Sanders said he views the expansion of Jawbone Park and parking as a prime economic development opportunity.
“I think that anytime we can take advantage of a situation like this and expand our opportunities for economic growth, [because] it’s not just for Festival Fridays,” he said. “The CVB and Chamber could aggressively market it to some entities and activities that would pump dollars into our economy if we have the space to allot for it.”
Rylands agreed, saying he’s been vying for the city to purchase the old bank lot since Chase stopped using it years ago – and no private sector enterprise had expressed interest in purchasing the lot.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to expand the capacity for fairs and festivals, and to help Stockert accomplish their goal with their facility,” he said.
Rylands said private sector investment in Stockert – like Citizens Bank’s $100,000 contribution to the new addition – will increase the chances of the city being awarded grants to further develop SYCC and connected recreational opportunities.
“It shows community interest and support and when people are making [decisions about grants], they want to hear success stories and communities that support their organizations and entities are always better off, so I strongly support the acquisition of this property,” he added.
Councilman Dave Thomas said he’d vote yes on the matter, but that he believes council needs to form a committee and develop a strategic plan for developing the 1.03-acre lot.
Three distinct votes
The financial transaction was split into three separate items on council’s agenda, each requiring a separate vote. McCauley asked for roll call votes on each. All seven council members, including Skinner and Bucklew, supported formally accepting the $100,000 gift from Citizens Bank for naming rights of SYCC’s new area.
However, just five – councilwoman Mary Albaugh, Sanders, Rylands, Thomas and McCauley – voted to support authorizing the execution of the purchase agreement between the city and Citizens Bank and approve the first reading of Ordinance 443, which authorizes the execution of the purchase agreemen
Skinner voted no on purchase agreement and ordinance authorizing it because he said no strategic plan had been developed, while Bucklew abstained from both votes.
The second reading of the ordinance authorizing the purchase agreement is set for council’s next regular meeting March 19 and if passed then, would go into effect April 18.