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For Palm Coast, Community Centers Are “Pie in the Sky” But City Hall Hovers Closer

| March 29, 2011

Palm Coast's lone community center has many, but limited, uses. (© FlaglerLive)

When the Palm Coast City Council set its goal for the year last May, top priorities included developing a conceptual plan for a community center in northern Palm Coast. A new city hall didn’t make the top priorities. It made the “high priorities” list lower down.

On Tuesday, the city council heard, for the first time since May, conceptual plans not just for a community center up north, but for several community and “satellite” centers throughout the city. It also heard—and mostly agreed—that much of the plan is “pie in the sky” stuff: good planning, but no money for it right now, or for the near future. It was a subtle change from May’s goal-setting, when the idea of a community center was more focused, and more doable, compared with a broad-ranging plan for an ideal wish list.

“Always keep in mind that there’s no funding for this,” City Manager Jim Landon told the council at the start of the discussion on community centers. Then, one by one, the council members themselves concurred. Frank Meeker: “It’s a nice discussion based on the parks’ plan, but the concepts discussed in that plan do not reflect the financial realities of where we are for the next number of years.” Mary DiStefano: “Let’s face it, we’re getting ready to work on the 2012 budget, and we all know, there’s no funds.” Mayor Jon Netts: “Clearly we don’t have the money and I don’t anticipate having the money for this any time in the future.”

None of them had used that kind of language when talking about building a new city hall several times since last May. The city has more than conceptual plans for that project. It has a price tag ($10 million), a funding plan (the city manager says the city has the money and wouldn’t need to raise taxes to pay for the building), a location (Town Center), an architecture firm, and bids from construction firms, though no formal decision from the council yet to move toward actual construction. With a public still either largely skeptical or opposed to a new city hall, that politically dicey decision may not be made before the coming election, in which Mayor Jon Netts and council member Holsey Moorman are running for re-election. “Politically, it’s suicide,” Netts said last November about moving ahead with a new city hall, even though he said, “intuitively, right now, it’s a good thing.”

So the claim that the city has no money isn’t quite accurate. It doesn’t have $10 million to build something other than a city hall: About a third of that $10 million can only be spent by the utilities and building departments on capital needs related to those departments. Contributing those $3 million or so to a city hall that would house the building and utilities departments would be permissible. Contributing it to a community center or other unrelated needs would not be. That leaves Between $6 million and $7 million the city does have, by its own admission, to spend on capital or other needs.

It almost did commit some of that recently: “We were going to use some of that city hall money for Project Koala,” Meeker said.

Project Koala is the name given a potential deal that could have brought 400 jobs to Palm Coast through an Australian-based company looking to build an American headquarter. The company chose Fort Myers instead, even though Palm Coasr was ready to offer $2 million in incentives, but with strings attached. (See the details here.) That the city was ready to spend a good chunk of the so-called “city hall money” on economic incentives suggests that even the administration is recognizing the political obstacles in the way of a city hall deal this year. But its readiness to front the money for Project Koala also undermines the claim that there is no money for other projects.

There is no will to spend that sort of money on other projects: that much the council and the city manager made clear on Tuesday after watching and hearing a presentation on what the city calls community and recreation centers. The centers as the city sees them wouldn’t be square halls to accommodate a few activities but all-purpose centers that answer many needs, appeal to many ages and help develop the city’s identity and broader goals, from neighborhood stabilization to recreation to easy access. At their highest end, those centers would be the type of place that would include swimming pools and gymnasiums, though such plans would only be achievable in partnership with other agencies—an “aquatic center” with the YMCA, for example (the local YMCA is exploring just such an arrangement).

Ideally, the city would have a center—or a smaller, satellite center—in each of the city’s four main sectors. The larger centers would be about 40,000 square feet on sites of 5 to 6 acres, the smaller centers would be about 15,000 square feet on 3-acre sites. The city would look at some of its own facilities (the tennis center on Belle Terre, two sites in Town Center, including along Bulldog Drive, across from the existing Youth Center). It could also acquire sites or buildings existing clubs no longer want.

The Portuguese-American Club is just such a building. Meeker, the council member, said the site could be acquired for $1 million over three years and turned into a senior center—an idea DiStefano, long a supporter of senior center, said she liked, but that the rest of the council and the city manager didn’t go for.

“Palm Coast is also changing generationally, so you have to reflect that with any plan that you do,” council member Bill Lewis said of Meeker’s idea of a senior center. “I would prefer to see a multi-generational site” because there’s not much for young people, he said.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Meeker said, “but I would tend to disagree with your conclusion that there’s nothing for them to do. I’ve got soccer fields, I’ve got baseball fields, I’ve got track, I’ve got golf, I’ve got a lot of sporting activities in a lot of areas, I’ve got hockey rinks over at the school, I’ve got meeting areas for them and church organizations supply stuff for kinds—there’s a number of activities for kids. To my knowledge, other than probably some very small, isolated stuff, I’m not sure I’ve got anything for seniors.”

When Meeker asked Landon what it would cost “from the ground up” to build a new community center, Landon didn’t answer the question with a dollar figure. Rather, he addressed the concept: if it’s not all-inclusive as an activity center offering plenty of recreation and physical activity, it won’t be successful.

“We’re going to have to talk about this in much greater depth and detail,” Netts said. “Don’t forget that we balanced this year’s budget by cutting the capital projects to zero. We haven’t really started the budget process for next year. You all know intuitively if nothing else, we have a lot of catch-up top play, so I don’t see funding coming out any time in the near future.”

At no point did the matter of the projected city hall come up. In an interview after the meeting, DiStefano said that, despite her support for senior centers, she’d put building a city hall first: “The city of Palm Coast is only 11 years old,” she said. “Look what we have done, look at the parks, the trails, the roads. We’ve done for everybody else. Why can’t we do it for the city employees so they have a workable situation?”

When voters rejected the planned city hall in 2005 by an 82 percent majority in that referendum, they’d also been asked about paying for new community centers. They rejected that proposal, too, but by a considerably less damning figure: 60 percent. The public’s priority list is likely as much at odds with city government’s on these two items today as it was then.

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9 Responses for “For Palm Coast, Community Centers Are “Pie in the Sky” But City Hall Hovers Closer”

  1. Jenn Carleton says:

    Oh good God people! You are all insane! So glad I am moving out of here. More hogwash!!!! Political mumbo jumbo! No cops getting DUI’s this past weekend? No deaths to report? Seriously! Still complaining about lost jobs. Maybe your sacred Olive Garden/Red Lobster has a few leftover dishwashers or waiter positions open? Go figure? :o( It is a sad sad world in Palm Coast. You all have flown the coop!

  2. Jim Guines says:

    Is it likely that the city of Palm Coast may look at the possibility of a youth center like the one at the high school or what I think Garver gym will be in Bunnnell, The centers are not just for recreation, but youth oriented activities that are wholesome and useful for social and even intellectual development. I do not hear anyone speaking for the youth in the city.

  3. Liana G says:

    Dr Guines: These folks are not interested in the youths of this city because their youths are most likely all grown up, or they don’t want them socializing with the local folks who will be using these centers. Notice where the YMCA is located and who it caters to.

    We need a BIG library with lots and lots of books, computers, and additional room for other activities, and to expand existing activity areas. Can we have a BIG library please? Notice I did not say bigger because the existing one would have to be considered big which it is not!

  4. gmemom says:

    Dear Hit and Run Mary DiStefano,

    The city workers have jobs…what else do you need to do for them other than not to bankrupt the city? They seem to work just fine at City Walk. It seems like you and Mr. Landon need those new offices for your enjoyment.

    Dear Mr. Netts and Mr. Moorman,

    You are right, it is political suicide. If you’ve got no money for programs or facilities that the public (not employees) can use, then you have no money. If you would like to keep your jobs, accept the fact that the good of the many (citizens) outweighs the good of the few, or the Landon.

    Dear Mr. Meeker,

    If you pursue the city hall construction, you can give up your office so that the seniors will “get something”. Multi-generational is the future of Palm Coast. Mr. Guines is right, we need more programs for the youth and seniors…how about more classes/ facilities for the adult education program?

    To all the voters,

    If these elected officals blow all of this money during these tough times, what will we do next for the next decade? Industry is not flocking to Flagler or Palm Coast. Gas is too expensive to warrant another building boom. Dave Ramsey would tell them to focus on the needs, not the wants. If a family needs to be debt free and have 6 – 9 months worth of savings ready for the emergencies, why wouldn’t a city need at least 3 – 6 years worth of savings?

  5. Rob says:

    Geez. Don’t these politicians have any substantive issues to focus upon? How about a workshop on driving out inefficiency within government. Maybe they have had one but I just missed the announcement.

    They can wish, hope and plan on their own time.

    “Politically, it’s suicide,” Netts said . Just who’s interest is he concerned with, the citizens or his own? Draw your own conclusion based on his statement.

    If you folks re-elect either Netts or Moorman you need to have your heads examined. I have not seen or heard anything from either one that begs another term.

  6. pcvoter says:

    If there is no money –

    Why did the City of PC have a celebration at Outback for it’s 5 year employees last week? HOW MUCH $?

    Why are there two inspectors, sometimes driving two vehicles, for every inspection? OVERSTAFFED!!!

    Why are there at least 25 unused vehicles in the parking lot of City Walk? SELL THEM!

  7. Anon says:

    As of May 31st the local YMCA will close.

    How about taking part of the ten million earmarked for the city hall and underwrite a portion of the cost to construct a decent size YMCA?

  8. Ric says:

    how about people commenting negatively on this story go and find employment and stop shooting down ideas. And for the retired folks commenting on this story leaving negative comments….why would it be a bad thing to make more recreational areas for younger people? There are plenty of places for you to play bridge and bingo.

  9. The Truth says:

    While I think more community centers would be great, perhaps the City should focus on running this center a bit better. Currently, this center has a director at around 90k a year, a superintendent at 45-50k a year and a supervisor at 35-40k a year and they having nothing to show for it. The center was run better years ago with less staff and more programs for seniors, adults and children. It seems now it’s a competition on how to get the highest salary and the lowest output. It’s unfortunate as this facility has so much potential but sits empty 85% of the time.

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