Community center compromise may be emerging

Ralph B. Davis rdavis@civitasmedia.com

October 16, 2013

PRESTONSBURG — With the Prestonsburg City Council locked in a stalemate for several months on where to potentially locate a proposed community center, a new plan appears to be gaining support that could bridge concerns over cost and convenience.

The council began discussing the center after receiving a report on core samples taken at the old Prestonsburg Elementary property and another tract at Big Sandy Community and Technical College. After learning that both properties would require substantial fill to raise the proposed center out of the floodplain, council members began discussing whether they need to take an additional step in ordering studies of both properties to gauge potential site prep costs.

However, before taking up that decision, the council heard of a new plan for the Prestonsburg Elementary site that appeared to pique the interest of several members.

For months, the council has been split between a faction in favor of Mayor Jerry Fannin’s proposal to build the center on the old grade school property, which would cost the city $1 million to buy the land, and others in favor of locating the facility at Big Sandy. While several polls and studies appear to show more popular support for the downtown location, several council members have argued for the college site, which would leave the city paying nothing for property.

“I just think spending $1 million for property when we don’t have to is foolish,” councilman Les Stapleton said during Monday night’s meeting.

However, Mike Vance, the city director of economic development, floated a new idea before the council Monday, which would allow the proposed center to be built downtown for a fraction of the property acquisition cost. Vance said described a plan under which the city would obtain only a portion of the old school property and combine it with the Trimble Branch Park, which the city already owns.

Roland Gray, who owns the school site, has previously offered to sell the entire tract, which is approximately four acres, to the city for $1 million. Vance said he has contacted Gray to see if he would be willing to divide the property and was told the city could buy a portion of the property at a cost of $300,000 an acre.

Vance said the city would possibly only need one or two acres of the school property, when combining it with the park and closing off Central Avenue between Mary Jane Street and Trimble Branch Road. The remaining property would then be available for other types of commercial development.

Several council members appeared to like the idea of using the center as a lure into downtown and an attraction for future development.

However, councilman Harry Adams said it was premature to begin obtaining site prep estimates on the various locations, because he still doesn’t know if the city can afford to operate the center once it is built.

Stapleton noted that the city has two nearby examples from which to draw lessons — the Knott County Sportsplex and the Letcher County Recreational Center, in Whitesburg. He said the financial situations of the two are vastly different, with Knott County losing money on their facility and Whitesburg making money on theirs. He said the primary difference between the two is that the Knott County Sportsplex is out on the highway, away from any other development, while the Whitesburg center is in town.

The council decided to have city treasurer Yvette Latta meet with Whitesburg officials to go over operational costs and revenues, to see if the city can get a better idea about how much it would cost to operate its own center. Adams said once that question becomes more clear, the council will have a better idea about whether to proceed with plans to build a center or scrap the project altogether.