If the Oglethorpe Conference Center is ever built, it may not be in the way most recently envisioned.
Mayor Cornell Harvey said the city has spent close to $1 million on the project, so far. City officials voted in December not to seek a $5 million bond to build the proposed center, but that doesn’t mean the project is abandoned.
“What was decided was we would not put the city in debt,” he said. “It didn’t come out of my mouth the center was dead.”
Brunswick City Commission members were presented several alternatives at Wednesday’s work session to consider after a request by LaRon Bennett for a study to determine the actual cost to build a convention center. The study would cost as much as $35,000.
City Manager Jim Drumm said an architect’s cost estimate is typically higher than the actual costs. An estimate from a builder would break down the cost of everything from lighting fixtures to the number of windows and give city officials options on how to cut specific costs.
A study to determine the exact cost would enable the city to negotiate construction costs, Harvey said.
One option is for the city to simply abandon plans to build a convention center. But the city cannot use the remaining SPLOST funds dedicated to the project to help pay for anything else. Instead, Drumm said a referendum could be held to pay down debt or reduce property taxes.
“We don’t have the alternative to repurpose,” he said.
The question that remains to be resolved is would the tax rollback rate apply to just city residents or everyone in the county.
Commissioner Johnny Cason pointed out that if the conference center would have been built, it would have been owned entirely by the city.
Another alternative is to build a smaller convention center on the Oglethorpe Block instead of the proposed 20,000 square-foot facility. By building a center about 65 percent smaller for the first phase it could be possible to set a firm budget for construction.
The city could also start from scratch to get architect proposals on a smaller community center 7,000 to 10,000 square feet in size. The cost would depend on the size and design.
Drumm also suggested purchasing an existing building for renovation into a conference center/community building as an option. The building could have many uses including hosting events such as meetings, weddings and parties. The cost would depend on what type of work is needed to renovate the building. The challenge with renovating a building is the possibility of problems such as bad wiring, plumbing and rotted wood aren’t discovered until work has begun, driving up the cost.
It’s also a possibility to build a multi-floor center with retail on the first floor, conference center on the second floor and office space on the third and fourth floors.
The final option was to partner with Glynn County to use the funds to help pay the cost of the 400-seat meeting room at the Brunswick Public Library.
Harvey said he was opposed to that option because it would be the equivalent of double taxing city residents. He blamed the county for imposing a time limit to build the center on property it donated for the project.
“We spent $380,000 because of the time limit,” he said.
Harvey said city officials have a common goal, but there is “too much interference” to move the project forward.
Cason said the city doesn’t have the tax base to get into heavy debt to build a convention center that began as a $3 million project before it morphed into a project costing more than $7 million.
Commissioner Vincent Williams said he has never seen the city undertake a big project, but the county has managed to do them successfully.
“Either we’re going to do it or not do it,” he said. “If do it, let’s move forward. At some point we have to make a decision.”
Former Mayor Brad Brown thanked commissioners for the decision in December not to put the city into debt. The center started as a seed for a public/private partnership and has been caught up in bureaucracy, but he believes the city is moving in the right direction.
“There are still people potentially interested,” he said. “You need to look at the other options out there.”
If possible, a presentation could be scheduled for the next commission meeting on Feb. 20 by a potential partner for the convention center, Harvey said.
City officials had a light agenda after the meeting ended. They voted to approve funding for roof repairs for the gymnasium at Howard Coffin Park and the Ritz Theatre. The roofs were damaged by Hurricane Irma and 2017. The $73,050 for the repairs will be covered by state and federal funds already approved.
City officials also approved the sale of a surplus Vac-Con truck.