Recreation plan attracts mostly supporters to bond hearing
A public hearing Monday on a $64 million bond for various construction projects in Macon County attracted relatively few naysayers.
Voters in Macon will get to weigh in on the slate of construction projects in a countywide vote on Nov. 6. Each component of the bond package will be a separate item on the ballot. The biggest share of bond money is for new schools. Other components include recreation, a new library in Highlands, a new senior center, and a new community college building.
One speaker, Larry Stenger, spoke in support of all the projects.
“What we are talking about is quality of life for the people of Macon County,” Stenger said at the Sept. 10 hearing. “I hope people realize it is an investment in the future.”
The bond project that drew the most attention was the recreation component: $9.4 million for a county fitness center complete with basketball courts, a walking track, aerobic and weight rooms, and an indoor pool. The price tag also includes a few new sports fields. Support for the recreation initiative was widespread, from Senior Games participants to middle school students.
The largest show of support came from school swim teams looking forward to a year-round pool for practice. More than a dozen swim team students, plus their parents and coaches, packed several rows in the room where the public hearing was held.
Youth sports in general will benefit from the recreation bond, according to Ed Rewis, a youth league coach. From basketball to soccer, scheduling practice time for all the teams has become nearly impossible.
“It’s almost to the point where if we don’t get these facilities we are going to have to start turning kids away from playing. We just don’t have room for them,” Rewis said.
The proposed fitness center would improve the health of residents in Macon County, according to Martin Wadewitz, the CEO of Angle Hospital. Wadewitz said 61 percent of Macon County residents are overweight or obese, leading to health problems from diabetes to hypertension to heart disease.
“Your willingness to support this facility will benefit the community for years to come,” Wadewitz said, offering the endorsement of Angel Hospital.
At what cost?
Not all speakers were supportive, however. Bill Crawford questioned whether it was the county’s place to be in the recreation business. The fitness center would compete with the services of private gyms, possibly destroying the livelihoods of some entrepreneurs.
“These business should not be threatened with public replication,” Crawford said.
Being put out of business by the county’s new rec center is a possibility for Ed Morris, the owner of Franklin Health and Fitness Center, a large private gym with everything from an indoor pool to racquetball courts.
“If we lose 50 members, we can’t pay our bills,” said Morris.
A couple of speakers questioned whether the plans for the fitness center are well thought out. For example, Crawford challenged the wisdom of including racquetball courts in the new fitness center.
“There isn’t much demand for racquetball in Franklin,” said Crawford. Crawford is a self-describe racquetball enthusiast, but said the sport is declining. Crawford said the current courts at the Franklin Health and Fitness Center, are “underused” as it is.
John Cleaveland questioned whether the county has adequately considered overhead costs of running the new recreation center. The county will have to subsidize operation of the center — a cost that isn’t reflected in the bond. Staffing estimates currently call for fewer employees than the town of Waynesville has at its public recreation center, even though Waynesville’s center is smaller. Cleveland asked what type of “magic formula” Macon has come up with to staff a bigger center with fewer people.
Some speakers said the construction costs of the recreation center were being low-balled.
“There are some serious miscalculations you need to be aware of,” Morris told the county commissioners presiding over the hearing.
The recreation committee, which developed plans for the recreation component of the bond, is estimating construction at $54 a square foot. That’s impossible, Morris said.
“There is no way you can build these facilities with that kind of money,” Morris said. The recreation projects are either going to cost a lot more or they won’t all get done, either of which is disingenuous to voters, Morris said.
A coalition of senior citizens turned out for the hearing — some even in wheelchairs and one with their oxygen tank — to show support for a new senior center, another of the bond projects on the ballot. The current senior center is a gathering place for seniors to come for hot meals, to play cards or simply interact with others. It keeps seniors independent and their outlook positive, helping them live longer and healthier, according to public speakers.
For seniors unable to stay home alone, the center provides daycare. It’s used by family members caring for loved ones in their home who need time off to work, run errands or just take a break. Tony Baro, whose mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s, called the senior center a “God send” for his family. But the demand is growing.
“It is obvious to me we are quickly, quickly outgrowing this facility,” said Susan Norden, who utilizes the daycare services for her mother. “I walked in today and the place was jammed. There was hardly a seat.”
The only speaker that addressed the school construction projects questioned how new bricks and mortar would improve education.
“Bricks don’t stop a child from dropping out of school,” said John Cleaveland. “They don’t make a parent get their child prepared before they go to school. The facilities aren’t going to help the mind of one child that I can see. The best thing we can give them is something for their mind, not somewhere to put their fanny.”
The school system is holding a series of community meetings at every school in the county to explain what the school component of the bond — $42 million to be exact — will mean to each school. Go to www.smokymountainnews.com for the line-up of school system meetings on the bond.