An unfinished park is at the center of a potential tug-of-war between the Columbia County Recreation Department and the Family Y.
At the beginning of the year, Columbia County purchased nearly 150 acres of land off Blanchard Road to build Blanchard Woods Park. At the time of the purchase, made with $1,633,940 of 1-cent sales-tax money, the plan was to build soccer fields, tennis courts and walking trails.
In a Community and Emergency Services meeting Oct. 2, County Administrator Steve Szablewski asked officials to consider entering into a joint venture with a private business to build a $5 million, 50,000-square-foot indoor recreation facility at Blanchard Woods.
County Commissioner Steve Brown said he has started discussions with the Family Y about possibly buying or leasing the property and building a new Family Y complex on it.
"What I thought, initially, was how much better it would be if you could have a park that had the whole spectrum of recreational facilities provided, whether it be government or private entity," Brown said. "Here you could have a park, soccer fields, greenspace and then you could have basketball, handball, the whole nine yards on one piece of property."
The proposal raised concerns at the Columbia County Recreation Advisory Board.
"The basic problem is they're entering into discussions with the people at the Y, and they completely left the advisory board out of the loop," said Bobby Waters, chairman of the advisory board. "You don't take a private business entity and place it on county land and give them control."
Public-private partnerships are nothing new for the county, Szablewski said. Citing examples such as the World Disc Golf Association building at Wildwood Park, the Augusta Canal Authority's use of the Savannah Rapids Pavilion and the county's contract with Gold Cross for ambulance service, Szablewski said such partnerships have saved the county money while providing better service to its residents.
Szablewski said he will make a recommendation to commissioners at their Oct. 21 meeting for the county to send out a request for proposals for a private entity to run Blanchard Woods.
Brown said he will back the proposal.
"The government does not need to be in the intensive recreational development business," he said. "To me, that's not a service we're supposed to be involved in. That's the first step toward runaway expenses."
Preferring to spend penny sales-tax funds on land for soccer parks and low-cost recreation facilities, Brown said he doesn't want the county to get involved with projects with the high overhead of an aquatics center or a gymnasium.
Szablewski said that developing public-private partnerships is the only way to keep up with recreation demands on a reasonable timetable.
"The recreation master plan was completed last year, and it called for $70 million worth of capital improvements for recreation," he said. "The 2000 (1-cent sales tax) had about $10 million worth of recreation expenditures. Based on that, it would take seven SPLOST referendums, or 35 years, to get enough funds to build all the facilities that were recommended in that recreation plan, including an aquatics center."
In the meeting with the recreation advisory board, Brown said the recreation department earns enough revenue to cover about 25 percent of its expenses. Taxpayers are footing the other 75 percent.
"We're getting too far into areas that cost the taxpayers a lot of money that don't support themselves, and it continues to grow," he said.
In January, the Family Y opened the Marshall Branch in the Eagle Point shopping center on Washington Road. Y officials have since been looking to expand in the county and formed a site selection committee to look for available property.
Brown is a member of that selection committee, but said he doesn't believe the position is a conflict of interest.
"I think it frees up some of our expenses from the general fund to make the parks better - more fields, more lights, more parking," he said. "Let the private entity take care of all those other things. Let them charge people."
Family Y President and CEO Dan McConnell said that if the county agrees to lease or sell the property to the Family Y, the group would put up the money to build an aquatics center and gymnasium as well as cover the operating costs to maintain the facility.
"We're looking at a potential partnership that would provide both the Family Y a permanent home in Columbia County, and in turn we would like to provide services above and beyond what is currently planned for that site," he said.
Those provided services worry Waters. Though McConnell promised not to duplicate programs already provided by the recreation department, Waters said he believes the organizations are too similar to work well together.
"The recreation department is not in favor of it, because the Y is the direct competition of the recreation department," Waters said. "It's kind of crazy to take your competition and set it right in the middle of you."
Possible programs that the Family Y says it can offer if it is allowed to build a facility at Blanchard Woods:
- Day camps
- Before- and after-school child care
- Youth sports beyond what the recreation department would provide at the site
- Soccer school for preschoolers
- Basketball school for preschoolers
- Flag football
- Youth roller hockey
- Youth baseball
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