It is exceptionally rare for newspapers to place opinion editorials on their front pages. This act is reserved for topics of extreme concern and dire circumstance.
We believe the city of Brunswick’s plan to build an $8.1 million conference center on Newcastle Street using public money rises to that occasion.
Over the past week, we have expressed our anxiety about this project in a series of editorials. We have also opened a public poll at TheBrunswickNews.com/poll for our readers to weigh in. We have been astonished at the responses we’ve received. More than 800 people have given us their feedback, the vast majority of which has indicated disapproval of the project.
For this reason, we are extending the poll to Nov. 17. We will publish the results Nov. 21. We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to make their voices heard. For anyone who has not taken the poll, we have added a comment question for respondents to share their opinion. For those who have already responded, please take a moment and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your thoughts. We are also looking for suggestions on how the Brunswick City Commission could better spend this money — if at all. We will take these comments and publish them so that city commissioners may read with their own eyes the will of their constituents.
To Mayor Cornell Harvey, Mayor Pro Tem Felicia Harris and Commissioners Vincent Williams, Johnny Cason and Julie Martin: We hope you are listening. The people do not want this monument to yourselves you are planning to build. The city has significant challenges and a conference center is a grossly negligent misallocation of resources and public money. Pull your heads out of the sand and look around: Your roads are crumbling. Buildings across the city are collapsing (two in the past four months). Thirty-six percent of your population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. The last thing you need to be worried about is a conference center that is projected to lose at least $500,000 annually in perpetuity.
If the city commission wants to borrow $4.5 million, as it is proposing to do for the conference center, here are some suggestions as to how that money could more properly be used:
• Improve your gateway corridor along U.S. Highway 17 with new landscaping to be more inviting
• Make permanent changes to the languishing Norwich Street by adding bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly amenities
• Fight blight by buying up some of the more than 100 dilapidated buildings in the city, razing them and selling the empty lots
• Build a series of multi-purpose bike and walking trails throughout Brunswick
Of course, we’re spitballing here. These are just ideas, and surely they all have pros and cons. However, we believe they’re all better than building a pipe-dream conference center.
If borrowed, this money comes on the full faith and credit of the city of Brunswick and its taxpayers. If the city, during a 20-year repayment period, is unable to meet its debt obligations, it would likely be forced to raise property tax rates. This is not a game. This has real-world implications for property owners, businesses and the future of Brunswick.
We also understand there are strings attached to the special-purpose, local-option sales tax money — about $2.5 million left today — allocated for the conference center.
The first thing the city needs to do is admit its fault, go to the Glynn County Commission and admit the project is not feasible. Hopefully from there, the two commissions can renegotiate their memorandum of understanding that imposes significant penalties on the city if the conference center is not built on the 1700 block of Newcastle Street.
This agreement essentially says the city must pay the the county market value for that property if the center is not built. Long-time area residents may remember that land was once home to the county health department. As part of the SPLOST agreement, the county is giving the city control of that land, as long as it’s used to build a conference center.
We’re willing to bet the Glynn County Commission would be open to reconsidering that arrangement.
All of this brings us to a bigger question: What happens to the SPLOST money if the conference center project is abandoned?
Georgia law allows for that money to be returned to taxpayers, or used to pay off public debt. This happens by the two commissions — city and county — passing resolutions declaring the project infeasible, and then asking voters in the next SPLOST referendum (in 2020) if they agree and want their money back. From there, as mentioned, the money can be used to pay off city and county debt, or rebated to the taxpayers in the form of reduced property taxes. This is the option we would prefer.
Above all, we want the city commission and public to know that we believe in Brunswick. This wonderful city by the sea holds immeasurable untapped potential and can become an even better place to live and work with the right initiatives, public-private partnerships and vision.
Building a conference center is not one of the things that will make Brunswick better. In fact, we believe it will be an albatross around the city’s neck for generations to come.