Palm Coast Quietly Plans Community Center Expansion For Bridge Club, Raising Questions
FlaglerLive | September 3, 2013
Since 2011, the Palm Coast Duplicate Bridge Club and city government have been working on a plan that would provide a permanent home for growing bridge club, either as an attached wing to the Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway, or as a stand-alone building adjacent to the center.
The non-profit bridge club has some 300 members, 60 to 80 of whom play up to six times a week at the nearby Lutheran Church, when the church’s own activities don’t cancel bridge meetings and classes. But the club is outgrowing the church facility. “It’s been one of the main problems about bridge in Palm Coast,” says Club Manager Patrick Heading. “You need a good place to play and a permanent place, and this is what we’re working for.”
The club is prepared to write a check for $250,000 to the city. In exchange, the city would build the structure and sign a use agreement that would give the club first dibs on the facility, which club officials foresee being around 3,000 to 3,500 square feet. The club would pay a monthly fee for usage as well. At all other times, the structure would be available for use by the city.
Netts described it as a “public-private partnership: it’s providing something for the city using private funds. To me it’s win-win.”
Not to a few others.
Residents who have been questioning the city’s use of the community center plan to make an appearance before the Palm Coast City Council this evening—the council meets at 6:30 p.m.—to question the way the city administration has been developing plans for community center expansion, especially with regards to the Bridge Club’s future facility.
The group is led by Dennis McDonald, who’s also taken the city to task over its road construction plans along Palm Coast Parkway and its ongoing standoff with Supervisor of Elections Kim Weeks over use of the community center for early voting. Among the group’s principal concerns: the council’s and administration’s behind-the-scenes dealing over a public property that whose future group says should be discussed publicly.
McDonald, whose carpet-bombing approach can at times look for conspiracies where there are none, sees the city’s plan as a way to eliminate the community center grounds as a potential location for a city hall in the future, though the area’s lack of parking would virtually eliminate it as a contender for such a location. McDonald and his followers—most affiliated with the local tea party—are particularly critical about the lack of transparency of the deal in the works.
Bridge club officials are apolitical: they’re about playing bridge and providing their members, most of whom are older and seeking regular intellectual stimulation, a regular, dependable outlet. Heading and Joel Atwood, who’s headed the building committee for the club, weren’t even aware of any opposition to the plans, let alone of this evening’s orchestrated protest before the council.
While the bridge club clearly appears to be an innocent party to whatever questions the residents plan to raise, it’s just as clear that the city has gone quite a distance in developing plans for the community center without public discussion, thus at least creating the impression that it’s operating in the shadows—even if its intentions are pure, and its goal laudable. (Contrary to McDonald’s claims, nothing stops the city from accepting a partnership with an organization to build a structure and lease use of it.)
Atwood first met with city officials in September 2010 and sought another meeting in April 2011 to propose building a facility on city land. On June 18, 2012, Atwood wrote the city’s parks and recreation director: “We would like to make a proposal to you and Mr. Landon about expanding the Community Center to house the bridge club. The expansion would not cost the city anything – all money would be provided by the bridge club. The city would own and be able to use the space except for when the bridge games are being played: Monday- Friday from 1 to 4:30, Saturday morning at 10 until 2. Average headcount per day is 40 – 60. We have a blueprint of the proposed expansion.”
Atwood has since met with Jim Landon, the city manager, with Mayor Jon Netts and each of the city council members (with the exception of David Ferguson, appointed to replace Frank Meeker when Meeker was elected to the county commission), and has been in regular contact with Landon, who’s been engaged in developing the plans. Atwood notes that the idea is modeled after the Daytona Beach bridge club, which has its own usage agreement with the city of Daytona Beach.
“Everybody was on board, they thought it was a win-win,” Atwood said. “To me I can’t see how the city can be harmed in any way.”
“We’re the only group that came to them and said look, we’ve got some cash, we can built a building and give it to you. And they said really?”
A tentative schedule for the project, which is part of a master plan for the community center complex, was produced in June. It included a June 4 project status meeting with Bridge Club members, a July 19 date for the city’s draft agreement for leasing the space to the Bridge Club, with that agreement finalized by Aug. 30 and discussion of the agreement at a City Council workshop on Sept. 24. Construction would begin in September 2014.
But Virginia Smith, the city clerk, cautioned that the timeline was very tentative, and that it was currently quite a bit behind schedule. Atwood said there’s been no agreement drafted yet. And of course the council hasn’t discussed the matter openly at a meeting.
“I don’t know that it wasn’t, I don’t know that it was,” Netts said. Asked when the matter would be discussed more openly, the mayor said: “At the point that you’d be anticipating signing some sort of an agreement. There’s nothing that’s been formalized yet, there’s no agreement, there’s no terms. What we’ve had is this conceptual form of notion.”
The model appears to be one Jim Landon, the manager, favors most: work out all issues and agreements behind closed doors, appraising council members one on one and getting their consent along the way, then producing the nearly finished product for open discussion at a council workshop, though by then the discussion would be more of a formality. An example of that approach was the deal the city carried out with New Jersey-based Player Development Academy, leasing it 65 acres for 25 years, just west of U.S. 1 (not far from the Indian Trails Sports Complex), for $10,000 a year—or for free, if the academy brings at least two tournaments a year to the city. By the time Landon unveiled the deal in April, it was done.
In December, Atwood wrote Landon that the club had built up $205,000 in pledges and $45,000 in its building fund. Those figures have grown since. “We are ready to proceed whenever you are,” Atwood wrote the manager. “We are having a Christmas Party luncheon on Wednesday Dec 19 – both you and Luanne are invited.” Luanne Santangelo is the city’s parks and recreation director, whose office is at the community center.
“Joel, sounds good,” Landon wrote back. “I met with our design team two weeks ago to kick off the site plan design and other details we need to complete to make this project happen. As soon as we have preliminary concepts we will get with you to coordinate the details.”
Landon and Atwood and his committee had a substantive meeting in June at which Carl Cote, the city’s building manager, was requested to produce a project plan for the upcoming budget year and the club requested the timeline for the usage agreement, the architecture and construction plans, and the development of the proposal that would be presented to the council for approval.
McDonald and his group of supporters are seizing on the irony of the city manager clearly accommodating a non-profit–but a non-governmental–organization with what would be a luxurious facility at the community center, all the while putting up obstacles in the way of Supervisor of Elections Weeks and her governmental plan to make the community center an early voting location in 2014 and 2016. (Weeks, who wanted to be on tonight’s meeting agenda, was herself making an issue of those obstacles in an email to the city clerk today, when it became apparent that she was not given a spot on the agenda: ” It is not acceptable that I cannot be placed on the Agenda without Mr. Landon’s approval,” she wrote Virginia Smith “and it is apparent he has his own agenda as he scheduled these voting matters for future workshop and council meeting without verifying my availability.”)
The timeline for the bridge club building is behind schedule, but the overall plan is moving forward.
“They’ve narrowed it down to two design firms, so once they come up with a design firm we can come up with a usage agreement,” Atwood said on Tuesday. “We’re not asking for handout here. We’re putting the money up. I think that’s wonderful thing. I think the historical society may be doing something there too.”
Heading, the club manager, said the plans currently being discussed would entail a separate wing addition to the community center, “on the north edge that would parallel the westbound leg of the Palm Coast Parkway, something kind of a little bit to the side and out of the way. We will not interfered with city activities or other activities. We’d have separate entries and drop off areas and things of this sort.”
The bridge club has been around for about five years. Its older membership means that individuals die from time to time—and leave the club money in their will. In one case, a beloved member’s death resulted in other members donating $10,000 in her name, for the building fund.