Legacy committee approves loan for conservatory, but will it matter?

September 8th, 2016

 By Kevin Leininger | News - Sentinel 

The committee charged with making recommendations to City Council about the use of Legacy funds Thursday approved a $200,000 loan for a walkway linking the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory to the Embassy Theatre and agreed to consider a requests for millions more.

But, with council set next week to consider a resolution that would freeze all Legacy spending except for riverfront improvements, it may all be a moot point — and Legacy Joint Funding Committee Chairman Ron Turpin knows it.

"If that (resolution) passes, it would be a dramatic change. But we have to keep moving," Turpin said after the committee approved the loan for the $1 million walkway, which would have to be repaid over four years. A bond approved by the Parks and Recreation Board earlier Thursday would cover about half the cost.

At the request of City Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, the committee considered a $2 million request from the developers of the Posterity Heights/Scholar House project proposed for the former McMillen Park Apartments site on McKinnie Avenue. Although committee members spoke highly of the concept, which would combine low-cost housing and educational and lifeskills support primarily to single parents and their children, Turpin and others question whether the project is consistent with guidelines for use of the fund, created through the sale of the city's former electric utility.

Even if the project is not funded, Turpin said, he would assist in the search for other funding sources.

And that may be necessary if Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, can convince council to limit Legacy spending to riverfront development, at least for now.

As The News-Sentinel first reported last month, Jehl wants to conserve funds for riverfront and future generations and is concerned that will be complicated by spending on other projects. Jehl expects the fund to contain about $37.23 million at the end of the year, but notes that about $16 million has been placed in reserve as a backup for bonds and other purposes. Another $7.5 million has been appropriated but not spent and $3.2 million more in requests is pending. If council gives the riverfront project another $10 million — a request expected soon, Turpin said, Jehl figures just $573,904 in unpledged funds would remain.

The administration of Mayor Tom Henry, however, has said the fund will remain solvent. Turpin reiterated that pledge Wednesday, noting the promise has been made to protect a corpus of about $30 million. "We know that will be challenged" by spending proposals, he said, adding: "We need guidance from council.

"That could come as early as Tuesday, but no matter what council decides, Jehl said he wants Turpin's committee to keep doing its job. Even if Jehl's resolution fails, six council votes out of nine are required to spend Legacy funds. Citing a lack of information, the committee Thursday also deferred action on funding for renovations to the former Clyde Theater on Bluffton Road and rejected the YWCA's request for $300,000 toward its crisis center for women.

City Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, suggested the proposal does not meet Legacy's goal of funding "transformational" projects, but YWCA President and CEO Debbie Beckman responded the project would transform lives.