Friday, April 6, 2012
What a difference a few days can make.
Last Monday, the Fort Oglethorpe City Council seemed ready to say “Thanks, but no thanks” to the Catoosa County Commission’s offer to purchase the Old Post Gymnasium and give it to the city.
Before the conclusion of a public workshop held Friday afternoon, the council’s sentiment seemed to have shifted so much so that Councilman Johnnie “Red” Smith said, “I want to see it done, one way or another. I’ve seen this arguing back and forth. Let’s put that aside and move forward.”
Relocating the 6th Cavalry Museum to the building that once served as a gymnasium when Fort Oglethorpe was nothing more than a military outpost still depends on whether or not an agreement can be reached regarding repairs and maintenance for that structure.
“[The building] could truly be a showpiece for this city,” Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Lynn Long said during Monday’s meeting. “It is part of our history, and it would be great if we had the 6th Cavalry Museum in the center of town. I hope this can happen.”
The mayor was referring to the circa 1904 building, now owned by local businesswoman Judy O’Neal, that currently houses Tootie’s Treasure at 2978 LaFayette Road.
O’Neal said Chris McKeever, the 6th Cavalry Museum’s executive director, had broached the notion “two Thanksgivings ago” of moving the museum from its current home that is several blocks away on Barnhardt Circle.
Last year the county commissioners agreed to dedicate some SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) money that would allow the museum to move instead of attempt renovations of a building that once housed the county’s health department.
That building fails to comply with provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding access to restrooms, its upper floor and the main building itself. In addition, about half the museum’s collection cannot be displayed due to a lack of usable space.
The County Commission earlier in the month had approved spending up to $350,000 to purchase the Old Post Gym and immediately lease it to the city. Because countywide SPLOST money earmarked for historic preservation would be used, state law requires the county maintain title to the property.
The county’s offer to pay the appraised price and then give the property away carried stipulations: the county would retain title, the city would be responsible for all maintenance, the county would lease the building to the city and the city would sublet the building to the museum.
Prior to their purchase, county officials sought an appraisal of the building and an inspection to determine what repairs were necessary. That inspection produced a 73-page report that cited flaws, large and small, that should be addressed and estimated a complete renovation would cost more than $248,000.
The prospect of making such costly repairs and being responsible for ongoing maintenance prompted city officials to question whether or not it was worth the investment.
The city is in the process of building a maintenance shop, something that has been needed for years. Rather than being required to foot the bill for major renovation, councilmen hoped that county would make repairs and provide a turn-key facility or else could deal directly with the museum and “leave the city out of the loop.”
Long had suggested during the Monday meeting that the county perform the work deemed necessary in the inspection report before the city would accept the building and its upkeep.
But the county government has begun a long overdue renovation and expansion of the court house in Ringgold and it is doubtful more funds would be available for what would essentially become a city building.
“We can come up with the money to buy the building,” said County Commissioner Bobby Winters, who voted against purchasing the gym. “This is all that is available for Fort Oglethorpe — and it takes away from Ringgold.”
McKeever said the city originally planned to make $150,000 of repairs at the current museum but decided that money would be better spent on acquiring O’Neal’s building. That historic structure could become the centerpiece for nascent plans to revitalize LaFayette Road between Battlefield Parkway and the entrance to the Chickamauga National Military Park.
“This would be a gateway to the park,” former mayor and community leader Leonard Fant said.
Kyle Russell, head of the museum’s board of trustees, said a capital campaign is planned that should pay for relocation and his members, many in the building trades, should be able to make necessary repairs for far less than called for in the building inspector’s report.
“There are things that need repair, but that cost estimate of $248,000 is based on a worst case scenario,” McKeever said. “The fact of the matter is, the building is usable and is able to be opened and used without any repairs.”
O’Neal said she not only spent money buying the building but has also invested in making it ADA compliant and maintaining it.
“I don’t believe a thing on that appraisal,” she said. “I’m not trying to be ugly, but I don’t have to sell it. You have until April 15 — it’s off the market after that.”
The council members agreed conversations such as Friday’s should have occurred much earlier but there is no longer any time to dither.
“We need to put this on the next agenda [April 9],” Councilman Eddie Stinnett said. “Accept it from the county and then lease it to the Downtown Development Authority. If the museum cannot be viable we can board it up for 30 years. It won’t look any worse than the other buildings in the neighborhood.”