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A View From the Bridge

by Roger Larsen

At the November 15 supervisors meeting, Harry Sanders noted that two of the county’s CVB board appointees’ terms had already expired.    He was referring to David Sanders (his brother, the Link’s representative on the CVB board), and Cindy Putnam, who represents the hotel/motel industry.   The supervisors agreed to advertise that the positions were open (15 days) and then review any applications (another 15 days) and then vote on the appointments.   County Administrator Ralph Billingsley subsequently learned that the term of one of the county’s two at-large appointees, George Swales, would expire at the end of December, and that the term of the other at-large appointee, Dewitt Hicks, would expire at the end of January 2011.   At the November 30 board meeting, Mr. Sanders informed the board of this.  He also told the board that he had obtained a copy of the city ordinance setting up the CVB and that it gives the city council and the board of supervisors oversight over the CVB’s budget and hirings, and also stipulates that the head of the Chamber of Commerce has a seat on the CVB board (the Chamber was folded into the Link several years ago but even by then the Chamber was no longer being represented on the CVB board).  At the November 30 meeting, Mr. Sanders wanted to go ahead and vote on the two seats that had already been advertised.  David Sanders had reapplied but the ordinance says that the candidates names must be supplied by the Chamber, and the Link had nominated Bart Wise, not David Sanders (the ordinance gives the Chamber a member and also stipulates that the head of the Chamber is a member).  At this point, Supervisors Leroy Brooks, Jeff Smith and Frank Ferguson objected to making any new appointments.  Mr. Brooks kept repeating that the ordinance establishing the CVB is merely a city ordinance.    Someone said that Mr. Sanders was just trying to up-end the CVB board because that board had tried to cut the Link’s funding.

Mr. Sanders had already heard that Mr. Ferguson had contacted city officials trying to work out a compromise, so he was not surprised when Mr. Ferguson proposed setting up a city/county committee to examine the CVB ordinance and make changes (and he wasn’t surprised when Mr. Ferguson denied having been in contact with the city officials).   Mr. Ferguson proposed that the committee be composed of non-elected officials, “to keep the politics out of it.”  He suggested that board attorney Tim Hudson and Mr. Billingsley represent the county, that city attorney Jeff Turnage and city COO David Armstrong represent the that city, and that the CVB would appoint two “outsiders” (people not on the CVB board).    In fact, the city appointed Mr. Turnage and Councilman Gene Taylor (who gets money from the CVB for his South Side Festival) and the CVB appointed two of its own members, John Davis and John Bean.

Mr. Ferguson said at the November 30 meeting that he would go along with the committee’s recommendations regarding a new ordinance (or interlocal agreement).   Jeff Smith and Leroy Brooks both receive money from the CVB for their festivals and they are certain  to go along with the recommendations too—especially now that the committee is stacked to perpetuate the status quo ante.

The committee has not met yet, but Mr. Sanders was informed  Monday that a deal had already been cut.

CVB Director James Tsismanakis announced this week that he is leaving Columbus to take a similar post in Georgia.  The current CVB members are all fighting to hang on to their seats, and the chance to hire a new director makes them fight all the harder.    The fact that Mr. Tsisminakis is leaving and that the CVB ordinance is up for change gives us a perfect opportunity to consolidate CVB with the Link.  Instead of hiring a new director for $90,000 (Mr. Tsismanakis’s salary), a division head could be hired for substantially less.  Other savings would result from utilization of the Link staff and equipment.   CVB has already contracted for a new, $700,000 office, but that could be put to use too.    But such a consolidation will not happen, because Frank Ferguson has joined Messrs. Brooks and Smith and CVB entrenchees.    CVB appointees will keep handing out money to the supervisors and city councilmen who helped them keep their seats.

—–

It’s routine now for the public portion of a city school board meeting to last only a few minutes.  The M.O. is to adopt the agenda and hand out a few awards and then go into executive session for an hour or three.   This is illegal, by the way, and there are provisions in state law for dealing with board members who thumb there noses at the public like this.

Monday’s school board meeting was unusual in that the public portion lasted for an hour or so.   Supt. Del Phillips gave a report which included some comments about the impending opening of the new middle school on top of Airbase Hill (beyond the city limits but still within the school district’s boundaries).   Dr. Phillips’s comments are quoted in an article in this issue by Brian Jones.   Dr. Phillips began by telling the board that he had not been giving them updates on the construction of the the new middle school because information had been misreported, causing confusion.   I asked Mr. Jones about this and he said that he could not remember Dr. Phillps’s making any reports at all.

Anyway, Tuesday’s Commercial Dispatch dutifully parroted Dr. Phillips’s comments:  that construction is on schedule but that the opening will be delayed from after Christmas break till after the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday (January 19) inorder to give the public an opportunity to tour the new campus before the students move in.

Yesterday the Packet was unable to reach  Dr. Phillips, architect Chris Morrow or general contractor Ronnie West for comment on the situation, but I did talk to CMSD Public Information Officer Janet Lewis, who repeated Dr. Phillips’s line that construction is on schedule and that the completion date has not changed.  She said that the opening had been delayed two weeks because “we wanted a little more time to test equipment, to make sure that the bell systems are working properly, to make sure it wasn’t a rushed move.”  She said that the teachers would move in on January 18 and the students on the 19th.  Ms. Lewis said she was not familiar with the West Bros. contract or when the job was supposed to be finished.

People involved in local construction tell me that the work was supposed to be finished on November 28 but that West Bros. had to fight through delays caused by the bankruptcy of three subcontractors, among other things.   I’m told that one of these subs was a minority contractor that West Bros. hired under pressure from school officials.  Yesterday construction was going full blast and I’m told work is even being done there on Sundays.  And  I’m told that until a few days ago Dr. Phillips was still planning to start school on the new campus on January 4.

It is simply inconceivable that Dr. Phillips did not give his board regular reports about the construction project (he must have winked at them before he made his remarks in public at Monday’s meeting).   He surely briefed them on why the work wasn’t done on deadline and when to open the facility, and he must have discussed with them when the  whether the $2,000-a-day liquidated damages penalty should be imposed on West Bros.   No board member asked a question after Dr. Phillips gave his report Monday.

——

In early  2009 the long search for a sportsplex/soccerplex was narrowed to the Corps property (at the end of the Riverwalk), a tract near the old Graham Roofing complex off Old Hwy 82 West and Burns Bottom.    In May 2009, Neel-Schaffer Engineering produced a book assessing each site and giving cost estimates for developing each.   Neel-Schaffer’s estimate for developing the Burns Bottom site was $3.5 million (the figure was based on a 34-acre site—more land was eventually acquired).  Board of supervisors president Harry Sanders favored the Burns Bottom site.  The chief opponent was Birney Imes, publisher of the Commercial Dispatch.  Mr. Imes used his newspaper to pummel the idea and suggested that Mr. Sanders wanted to build a park there to steer business to River Hill Chevron, a Sanders Oil Co. (SOCO) store (SOCO is owned by Mr. Sanders brother Lee).  Mr. Imes also said that Burns bottom would be better developed commercially.  He appealed for someone with “deep pockets” to develop  it and build condos there.  I responded that Mr. Imes has some of the deepest pockets in town and should consider using some of his own money, for once, to further his visions.   (One likely reason that Mr. Imes was opposed to putting a sports park in Burns Bottom was that his wife, Beth, was behind the reincarnation of the Hitch Lot’s produce market into the Hitching Lot Farmers Market  Mrs. Imes got local men to donate time and materials to put a façade on the facility, then appealed to the city council for the final money needed.  The site had been called the Hitch Lot for as long as anyone can remember, but it was renamed the Hitching Lot.)    While the discussion went on about selecting a site for the sports park, Mr. Imes was among those promoting a visit to Columbus by a “charettes” group, which tries to identify a community’s strengths and then offers suggestions on how to develop them.  When the charette team finally came they were enthusiastic about developing Burns Bottom as a sports park.  Mr. Imes then got on board too, but said he was not happy wit the name Burns Bottom.  He used his newspaper to promote an alternative name:  Tanyard Park (a tannery was located there 175 years ago).

The city and county had always planned to build the park together, but  by 2009 the city was a little bit broke, so officials agreed that the county would pay for the park ($3.5 million) and the city would someday renovate the Trotter Center.  The city was able to contribute some ROW and infrastructure on the Burns Bottom tract.

Mr. Imes now had a Tanyard Park vision and he expressed concern that the soccer-plex  might not be developed appropriately, that natural features might be lost, and he offered to hire a landscape architect to help with the process.  His choice was the late Ed  Blake of Hattiesburg (he  recently died).   I don’t think the offer should have been accepted, but the main players went along with it.  Mr. Blake worked with Neel-Schaffer engineers on the design, with input at meetings of various “stakeholders”:  county officials, city officials, CLRA officials and Mr. Imes.     The project was finally put out for bid a few months ago and the bids were opened on December 6.  Phillips Contracting appeared to have the low bid at around $3.9 million, but a page had not been included in the total and the actual low bidder was Ellis Contracting at $4.6 million (with another $915,000 for “add-ons”—alternates that were not included in the base bid.)  It turns out that this was the engineer’s estimate, though the contractors did not know that in advance.   The bid was rejected as being too high.   When the supervisors did not discuss the bid at yesterday’s supervisors meeting, I asked Mr. Sanders why not and he said that it was rejected by CLRA.    The county is appropriating money to CLRA to pay for the project.

Mr. Sanders told me that Mr. Stafford told the “stakeholders” that the estimated cost of the work would be more than $3.5 million, but he said he doesn’t recall being told that the estimate was $4.6 million.  Mr. Stafford said he not only said that it was $4.6 million but that he gave the stakeholders printed figures to that effect.

One reason that the price went up is that the county acquired additional property, almost doubling the size of the entire tract (to around 71 acres).  With more property, a few more soccer fields were added, which added to the roads and parking.  Also, the quality of the work was elevated—Ellis Contracting’s bid for each bathroom/concession stand was $236,203.99, and there were two such facilities called-for in the bid package.   Light poles were concrete rather than fiberglass, and light globes were glass rather than plastic.  These decisions were made in the stakeholders meetings, and Mr. Stafford said that Mr. Sanders usually wanted to use less-expensive alternatives.

Mr. Stafford gave me the impression that working with Ed Blake complicated the design process.  He said that Mr. Blake’s main contribution to the basic project was to convince them to use “linear parking” rather than a big parking lot—this means putting parking on wide shoulders along the roads through the park.   He also said that Mr. Blake’s fee was $106,000 and that Mr. Imes only paid $30,000 of this—Neel-Schaffer paid the rest, and then tried to get as much help from Mr. Blake and his firm as they could ($30,000 is a lot of money to most folks but it a very small fraction of Mr. Imes’s net worth).   This brings up another point: whether the original $3.5 million estimate covered Neel-Schaffer’s fee.   Neel-Schaffer’s fee for the whole project is around $300,000 (with $75,000 going to Mr. Imes’s architect).  The county also had to foot the costs of land acquisition and early studies, which totaled around $300,000.    So there’s a discussion about whether the county now has $3.2 million to spend or just $2.9 million.   And Neel-Schaffer has already been around the world a couple of times on this project and has already gotten  all of the money it can demand at this point.  Obviously the parties (stakeholders still, or just the county, which is paying the bills?) need to have a sit-down and regroup.

In the wake of the bid opening, Mr. Stafford has gone back to the drawing board and has come up with a couple of new bid packages, the most economical of which has an estimated cost of just $2.9 million.  To get there, he took out one of the bathroom/concession stand units, switched from concrete to fiberglass on light poles, etc.  Mr. Stafford said that the restroom at the Hitch Lot could be used (they had better talk to Mrs. Imes  —after the Hitching Lot makeover police threatened to arrest Lacey Freeman when he tried to sell vegetables at the Hitch Lot before 7:00 a.m.)  City officials have offered to let the Streeet Dept. do some of the clearing and grubbing, and CL & W might do some of the lighting and wiring to further cut (shift) costs.  I suggested that some of the fields (there are more than 30) be taken out, which would eliminate some roads and parking.  After all, CLRA still has use of the Joe Cook soccer facility.

The add-ons in the initial bid package are the fruits of Mr. Blake’s vision.  They mostly involve the raw land north of the proposed soccer fields and include things like a dam across Moore’s Creek that creates waterfall walkway with Brazilian hardwood planks (Mr. Blake proposed throwing a dam across Moore’s Creek to create  the waterfall, but Neel-Schaffer didn’t even include that in the bid package).

Ralph Billingsley, who attended most of the stakeholders meetings, said that the project was originally just a sportsplex but “it grew into other things.”  CLRA Director Roger Short said, “Ed Blake had some wonderful ideas, but they shot the price of the project up…  As the thing progressed, all of a sudden it became a show-piece, a Central Park kind of thing instead of a soccer-plex.”

He said that he is subbing his own work out for the neighborhood park projects and is putting up metal buildings for bathrooms and concession stands rather than block buildings.  Speaking of the bid packages and engineer’s estimate, he said, “Kevin updated everybody and we were aware it was getting bigger than it was supposed to be, but we were at a point we had to bid it and see how everything came in.”  And there were initially ecstatic with the Phillips bid, till they learned there had been a huge mistake.

WCBI newsman Steve Rogers is attempting to raise money from private sources to fund a nature pavilion, one of the Ed Blake add-ons.  Mr. Rogers said that when he was an editor in Tennessee he raised $400,000 to build a two-acre park.  Mr. Billingsley said that he also thinks that private and corporate sponsorships should be pursued.

It appears that last year’s $3.5 million estimate was too low, but the problem was compounded by letting the project balloon.    I think it was also a mistake to let city officials and Mr. Imes and his partially funded architect have the same voice in the project as county and CLRA officials.  If the city ever undertakes a renovation of the Trotter Center, I doubt that county officials will have equal input into decisions.

There is talk now of having Neel-Schaffer sub the project  out rather than give it to a general contractor.  I should add that Leon Ellis of Ellis Contracting was not happy when, after his bid was rejected, Mr. Stafford released it in its entirety, with all of the unit costs and subcontractors costs.  Mr. Stafford told me that MDOT does this all the time, but Mr. Ellis said that MDOT only does it after a bid is accepted, not when all bids are rejected.

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