Do you wonder whatever happened with the Richmond Hill Conference Center project? Do you remember the original plan, the location or the method of financing? Are you aware of the changes proposed and how those changes will impact the city's taxpayers?
Many folks have probably forgotten about the project and most haven't heard about what has changed. I'd like to share with you my concerns and perspective as a Richmond Hill citizen and former city councilman.
The original site for the conference center was located on Brisbon Road – separated from hotels, restaurants and other supporting businesses. The proposed site has since been changed to J.F. Gregory Park. That’s right – our city’s version of Central Park – the green space specifically preserved in the middle of town for the community to have a place to come together and for families to enjoy. Locating the conference center in the park requires a "change of use" action for the property and I believe the city government should allow its citizens to have input on whether or not this location is a good idea. Furthermore, a study presented in February 2005 by the consulting firm Governmental Solutions, LTD was based on the Brisbon Road site. My understanding is that a study has not been done based on the J.F. Gregory park site.
Regardless of where this facility might be located, we (meaning you and every taxpayer within the city limits) will have to pay for it. Did you know that the mortgage payment alone for the conference center will be close to $300,000 per year? The projected gross income that the facility could generate is now estimated to be only $74,000 per year. That leaves a difference of more than $200,000 per year to be made up in taxes and that’s not counting the operating expenses. Operating a conference center will require staff, maintenance and promotion expenses to attract people and events. These funds will also need to be paid from the city’s tax income which can be raised by the city council to cover any obligation it makes. Once a conference center is up and running, the Mayor and City Council will be required to make ends meet. Conference center solvency should be a major consideration for voters as Mayor Davis made it clear during his 2005 election campaign that his current term would be his last.
The small amount of revenue (only $74,000 per year) suggests that there is really not much need for a standalone conference center and it may not be a wise business decision for the city – at least not over the time studied. What would the people of Richmond Hill be giving up in order to fund this project? A large portion of J.F. Gregory park? An aquatic center? Sidewalks and pedestrian trails as mapped out in "The Coastal Greenway Trail?" A performing arts center? These projects seem to have a greater and more immediate benefit to our citizens and represent a far more appropriate use of the city’s money. We should ask ourselves, "Why should we spend such a large portion of our town’s operating budget making up the financial shortfall of a facility that attracts conventioneers for only a handful of days each year?"
We should take a moment and think – creatively. Rushing to fulfill an agenda at taxpayers’ expense is never a good thing. Just consider the following as one alternative:
Our community does not have a facility that supports the performing arts and arts education. Study history and you’ll find that the most advanced civilizations understood the value of the arts and made it an important part of their culture – the arts were a major force in their growth. What if we combined our smaller need for a conference center with our larger need for a performing arts center? Then our children and other talented residents would not be forced to borrow the auditorium of a local church or make the trek to Savannah just to have a place to perform. A combined facility (we could call it the Richmond Hill Conference and Performing Arts Center) could potentially be funded by SPLOST funds, saving the city millions of dollars – everybody wins!
The combined facility suggested above is just one alternative from which to choose. Whatever action we take to move forward, let’s make sure the people of this community have a voice in the decision. What would you like to spend your money on?