Discussion of the planned Conference Center dominated last night’s meeting of the Richmond Hill City Council.
County resident Lynda Morse asked the mayor and council to allow people to vote on whether they want the project to be placed inside J.F. Gregory Park. She brought with her a signed petition bearing signatures of others who oppose the project.
Morse is part of a grass roots movement that has been going around town and speaking to people about what she believes is the potential negative impact of the conference center.
She said 600 people have signed the petition. She said this does not include an online petition, which bears some names of people out of the area.
"This petition is about allowing the people to vote on whether they want the conference center built in the park or not," Morse said. She said when residents voted on the SPLOST bill that includes this project, it was presented as a "conference/aquatic center" and was at that time going to be built on Brisbon Road. Morse said these changes should be just cause for a vote by the people.
Morse said the decision to place the structure in the park is not "environmentally and ecologically sound" and it will disturb the natural setting of J.F. Gregory. She also said it will negatively affect traffic and parking as well as create a disturbance to neighboring Mulberry subdivision. She also questioned the financial potential of such a project, saying Savannah is a more likely destination point for conferences.
Mayor Richard Davis said the center will offer a larger facility for community events in addition to conferences. He also said the movement against the project is based on a lot of misinformation. He said if the individuals who signed the petition knew all the facts, they may not have signed.
Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Floyd Hilliard said he has talked to many people about this project and more are for than against it.
He said that particular location in the park is an ideal setting for the center. It will be located just north of the Wetlands Center where the old wastewater treatment facility was located. He said it will enhance that centralized area of town and should be low key enough to not disturb its surroundings to an alarming degree.
"I have had literally hundreds of people over the last several years come up to me and say they wish the city had a larger facility in which to hold events such as graduation, proms, receptions and other large scale events," Hilliard said. "The Wetlands Center was kind of a test facility, and it is booked up year round – often twice a day. As far as impeding on wetlands, that’s simply not an issue here. The wetlands area doesn’t start until you cross the canal. Again, this will be on the old sewage treatment plant. As far as finances, we’re being told by professional people that this project is going to work. If they came back and told us this would not work, we’d kill it tomorrow."
Mulberry resident Cristie Toth said she’d rather see an aquatic center go up.
"That would be much more feasible," Toth said. "There are plenty of conference centers in Savannah, and I just don’t see the point in building one here. Conferences can go on at all times of the night. At least with an aquatic center, it would close at a reasonable set time. I’m afraid that it will negatively affect my property value and leave a negative impact on the ambiance of the park."
At the council meeting, Davis showed a few slides that displayed what the final product is scheduled to look like, a copy of the SPLOST ballot that includes the conference center listed on it and a map of the park where he attempted to show how this project will not greatly disturb the park as it is now.
City manager Mike Melton said the walking trail will not be disturbed. He said the same about the lawn area in front of the Wetlands Center which is used for soccer play and for the carnival area for the annual Seafood Festival.
Davis also said the aquatic center is still on the table as a future project. He also warned those who are pushing the "Save the Park" campaign, saying approaching people such as "mothers in the park watching their children" are inappropriate "and may be illegal."
Davis he is not surprised by the opposition, but certain protestors are being too aggressive and are distorting the facts. He said he anticipates some opposition to every major city project.
"Fifteen years ago, we had a controversy in Richmond Hill because we wanted to four-lane Ford Avenue," Davis said. "Ten years ago, people in Mulberry protested against building J.F. Gregory Park. Thank God we stood the course and we persevered or we wouldn’t have the park at all."