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County pledges parking help in agreement with city

POSTED: November 7, 2013 8:36 p.m.

Efforts to renovate Ulmer Park may be inching forward, after Springfield officials asked Effingham County commissioners what they could do in support.


County commissioners opted to help address the parking issues around the judicial complex in conjunction with what the city may do with Ulmer Park. Springfield City Manager Brett Bennett told commissioners Tuesday night the city had special purpose local option sales tax money it was willing to spend on the project — but city leaders wanted to know what the county’s intentions were.


“I’m not looking for a specific amount,” Bennett said. “I’m looking for a decision. A ‘no’ answer is better than no answer. We’re looking at spending our SPLOST dollars.


“Let’s jointly plan this together, so at the end of the day we have one nice project,” he continued.


Bennett said the city has between $300,000 and $400,000 set aside in SPLOST revenues for parks.


“We either want to do our own thing or in some way do a joint project with the county which will improve this area and accommodate the parking needs around the courthouse,” he said. “We’re not asking the county to build us a park in Springfield. We’re asking to plan this project together.”


Cost estimates on Ulmer Park promenade plans are $780,000, and the county and the city had a joint board exploring possibilities for the park, and Bennett said ideas on what to do with Ulmer Park stretched back “to the early 2000s” when the county was building the judicial complex.


“There was a quite a bit of coordination with the city and the county on a master plan,” he said. “There were big plans.”


Bennett added there had been discussions about building a multi-story parking deck near the courthouse complex, but those ideas were abandoned.


Commissioner Forrest Floyd urged his fellow board members to put money toward the Atlas Sand property but added he was in favor of alleviating parking problems around the Judicial Complex and the Historic Effingham Courthouse. Commissioners noted how much parking is needed on days when court is in session.


In approving their short-term work program, commissioners pegged $350,000 to go toward parking in the courthouse/Ulmer Park area. They also agreed to allot $50,000 to determine what the costs of making the Atlas Sand property usable will be.


“I’ve never heard the point about the parking,” said Commissioner Vera Jones, “but it’s a legitimate point. Now that that’s coming into play, while some citizens the park is not a benefit to them, they do come and park at the courthouse.”


Said Floyd: “I’m not in favor of putting county dollars into a park in Springfield. I am willing to look at parking to offset the problems at the courthouse.”


Commissioner Reggie Loper, who served on the Ulmer Park project committee, said he wanted to see the county help with planning better parking access.


“Whatever we can help with will be a benefit to the city,” he said.


Not only is parking an issue on court days but there are also times when the Historic Courthouse is busy because of people coming to the tax commissioner’s office to pay property tax or obtain vehicle tags.


Bennett added he believed the county intends to solve parking problems around the courthouses and the city also wants to ease parking.


“That’s going to be a substantial portion of this project,” he said.


Park plans in the making
Park proponents last approached commissioners more than two years ago about support for the project. Commissioners had discussed earmarking special purpose local option sales tax proceeds for the project but also explored the need for $750,000 in improvements to the recreation complex on Highway 119.


Interim county administrator Toss Allen said the county had identified $400,000 in its short-term work program for the Ulmer Park project.


“I don’t know where in Sam Hill we would get $400,000 to put into this project,” said commission Chairman Wendall Kessler. “There definitely is a parking issue.”


Kessler also expressed his gratitude to the city for allowing parking on the streets during days when courts are in session and the judicial complex is teeming with people.


“I think the need is great and the dollars are few,” the chairman said.


To Bennett, Kessler said: “You’re not getting a ‘no,’ but you’re not getting a ‘yes,’ because I have seen this county make moves in ways that are rash and does not encompass the whole issue. I have watched the board make no move and accomplish nothing.”


“Any movement forward would be appreciated,” Bennett said.


Talks on the Ulmer Park promenade included demolishing the Treutlen Building and building a community center on the site. Concepts for the park were made but no final design drawings were ordered.


“It never made it to full construction documents,” Allen said.


Bennett said the park committee’s directive was to “dream big” and create what they saw in their ultimate vision for the park.


“The goal was to build a concept of what you think will bring the most people together,” said Springfield resident and business owner Jamey Stancell, who served on the commitee. “We addressed a lot of issues that will cover a lot of citizens in the county, and not just the people of Springfield. I thought we did a good job.”


The city began to develop plans for the park in 2007 and after the county began renovating the Historic Courthouse and was looking at improving the Memorial Garden area, Bennett said, along with addressing the need for parking.


It was postponed because of other projects that had previous commitments from the commissioners. Bennett said he didn’t want to sound as if he were pitting the park project against other work the county wanted to accomplish.


“I do think there are some improvements that need to be made,” he said.


The park project concept, originally pegged at $780,000, was inclusive of everything the joint city-county committee could think of, county community relations director Adam Kobek said. The scope of the work could be scaled up or down, Kobek continued.


Grants for the park are difficult to get, Bennett said.


“While we want to benefit all areas, we also want to try to figure out how to spend these funds to do some things in areas that have nothing, like the south end of the county,” Jones said.


Other county needs
Work on the Effingham County Recreation and Parks gym was under consideration when the park committee last approached commissioners about the project. Kobek said the county intended to renovate the gym, which carried a $750,000 price tag. Instead, the recreation board opted to start at the back of the ECRP facility and move toward the front of the complex, with work on the sod, fencing and lighting to take priority.


The gym will be the last item to be addressed because the sheriff’s office — which has to decamp from its administrative offices as the jail and sheriff’s office complex renovations continue — has indicated it wants to set up shop in the county annex, rather than the Central School site, temporarily.


The lighting at the recreation fields at the ECRP’s Springfield facility has to be fixed, Kobek said, because standards have changed.


“We have wooden poles,” he said. “Some of them are leaning; some of them are catty-wampus.”


 Stancell urged the commissioners to do what they could.


“A city government putting their hand out to a county body and trying to be a partner with them is extremely rare,” he said. “I think it should be embraced. I think it takes county tax dollars and stretches them even farther and improves the quality of life. I think it helps the tax base. You have a city willing to work with the county. I would take that into consideration.”

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