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City commission discusses Event Center and free RTS fares for seniors and youths

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 22, 2019

This article only covers about the first half of the November 21 meeting.

Amendments to Firefighters Agreement

During the afternoon portion of the November 21 Gainesville City Commission meeting, the commission ratified amendments to the agreement between the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), Local 2157, Professional Firefighters Bargaining Unit and the City of Gainesville for the period October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2021.

No presentation was giving at the meeting, but according to a press release from the city, this extended an existing agreement through the next two fiscal years: “Amendments to the agreement provide market rate adjustments intended to align our firefighters’ pay with those of peer agencies. Raises will be implemented over the course of the next two years, beginning with a retroactive increase of no less than 4 percent, effective October 7, 2019.”

The amendments “also implement 12 weeks of paid parental leave for the birth of a child, adoption of a child or placement of a foster child. With the IAFF ratification, five of the city’s seven bargaining units and all non-represented employees now have access to a paid parental leave benefit.”

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Tracey Higdon, President of Gainesville Firefighters, said, “In the end, we got to something that both sides felt was acceptable to bring back. So I took it to my members for a vote this past week. It was not unanimous, but it certainly passed by a majority. So they were very thankful for what was offered.”

The commission ratified the amendments unanimously. 

Tumblin Creek Park renamed to Cora P. Roberson Park

The renaming of Tumblin Creek Park (600 SW Depot Park) to “Cora P. Roberson Park” was moved from the Consent Agenda so Roberson’s sorority sisters in Zeta Phi Beta Sorority could give a short presentation about her life. Roberson is now 95 years old and was unable to attend the commission meeting, but according to her biography, she ran for the Gainesville City Commission in 1968, the first female to do so. Although she did not win, she forged a path for others to follow. Roberson was also a schoolteacher and has been active in the community for many years.

The Zeta Phi Beta Sorority has adopted the park for the coming year in her honor. 

ITN for Old Fire Station #1

Next the commission considered developing ITN (Intent to Negotiate) criteria for a 3rd-party lease and programming for the Old Fire Station #1 on S. Main St. Sarit Sela, City Architect, said the city would be looking for applicants with a track record in their proposed operation type, a long-term commitment (with a 5-year operating plan), and financial stability. They will also need to “explain how the proposed use contributes to revitalization in the surrounding community and foster an inclusive environment through the programs it offers.”

The city will improve the building, including bringing it up to code and constructing new restrooms, an elevator, a catering kitchen, and internal and external stairs. The city will also upgrade the parking, back yard, and driveway areas. Additional improvements may be negotiated with the tenant. The improvements were estimated at $1.5 million in August 2018; the funding source has not yet been determined. The commission voted unanimously to offer the ITN. 

Event Center Discussion

The commission then moved to discussing the Event Center, an agenda item that had been requested by Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos. Hayes-Santos doesn’t think that putting the Event Center in Celebration Pointe, as is currently planned by Alachua County, would be good for the community. He said it would hurt redevelopment opportunities in the city’s downtown area and would “further sprawl by moving our city center further and further west.” He suggested looking at the Innovation Square area, the Power District, and Depot Park. He said the Victus report commissioned by the county said the Event Center “would be a $77 million economic impact and 1500 jobs would be produced not directly, but indirectly, as well from restaurants and hotels and things like that. That kind of impact, if we had that in the downtown area, would be massive.” Hayes-Santos was also concerned that first-time visitors to Gainesville would only see the Archer Road area, which “does not show the true character of our city” and “they’ll be like oh, this is just like the rest of suburban… Florida.”

Hayes-Santos was also concerned that most of the businesses in Celebration Pointe are chains; he said that money spent at local businesses has three times the local impact of money spent at chains. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he was reluctant to start a conversation or tell the county how to spend their money without being in the room together. He also said there were questions about how traffic flow would work downtown. He said Victus looked at which location presented the best business case, but “I think there is a social responsibility that goes along with $30 million to $50 million expense.”

Commissioner David Arreola pushed back against Hayes-Santos’s characterization of the Archer Road area: “I find it a slight to make comments about District 3, and constituents in District 3, that they don’t represent Gainesville. We don’t say that about anybody else’s district. So, I take umbrage with that.”

Commissioner Helen Warren said she has a “disagreement with large event centers in general to be funded with the public’s money.” She added, “I think what’s really important is that we have a community conversation to identify what’s the right fit, what’s the right thing, activity, building, business, to put in different parts of the city.” She is concerned about the effects of traffic and noise on the residents of the neighborhoods near the downtown locations. 

Commissioner Gail Johnson said,  “I think we’re talking about different issues and we’re conflating them. One is about the use of public money, or the best use in our community, and how is that done… for the social responsibility, and not necessarily an economic responsibility. So there’s that. And then there’s the second piece of what are we trying to accomplish with potentially putting an event center downtown.” She spoke about her experience living in Brooklyn when the Barclays Center was built: “it was really devastating for the community.”

Hayes-Santos then apologized to Arreola, saying he was “not trying to disparage District 3.” He said he wanted to bring downtown back to how it once was, “where it was the vibrant place that everyone went.” 

Commissioner Gigi Simmons said she had a lot of concerns: “One is, of course, the nature of our downtown, and the historic neighborhoods that are within that area. My other concern is that we have a population of youth between the ages of 18, maybe to 30 that have absolutely nowhere to go. And they’re looking for an event center. They’re looking for some type of venue that they can enjoy themselves. And we’re lacking in that area.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said that the joint commissions hadn’t defined what they mean by an event center: “To me, there’s a significant difference between a sports complex, and an event center. And what the county has been talking about is primarily a sports complex, that can serve double duty in other capacities, say for graduations, or for potential concerts, that sort of thing… I’m not convinced that that’s something our community needs. Or let me phrase it a different way. When we’re talking about a public investment of anywhere, I’ve heard between $30 million and $50 million, might a sport complex be economically viable? Probably in that location. Is that the highest, best use of public money? I have not heard a convincing argument of that…There is such a greater emphasis today on being very intentional with our public assets to make sure we are advancing equity and reducing disparities.”

Poe said the commission needs to check what uses are legal if the funding source comes from tourism dollars. He mentioned that some people are interested in building an International Center. “The issue with that, that I think we should be concerned about is if it’s completely privately funded and developed, we lose a lot of control over what it looks like, how it’s used, and whether the public has access to it, whether it’s a public facility. So we should be very interested because if something comes along like that and gets built, and could be an amazing asset to our community, it would preclude anything similar to it being built that would be much more oriented towards public use.” He said they’re going to get “one shot at this… we’re talking about this singular moment where $30 million to $50 million will be invested somewhere in our county, for that to not overlap with what our equity goals and needs are, would be hard to recover from.” Poe suggested doing some community engagement before taking action on this. 

Ward pointed out that this isn’t their decision—it’s the county’s decision. 

During public comment on the issue, Mark Sexton, Alachua County’s Spokesperson, came to the podium. He said, “The county is very interested in the idea of building an event conference center in the downtown area. Of course, a sports arena is a very different animal than a conference center. The county commission is moving forward with a plan to build a thoroughly studied sports arena at Celebration Pointe. But the county agrees that a hotel conference facility has been the missing piece in the puzzle of downtown and east Gainesville redevelopment. We’re very excited to see all of the city’s suggested areas for this center are located within the boundaries of a CRA. The conference hotel center is a classic Community Redevelopment Association project. We hope that this one will be considered by the CRA advisory board…We would encourage the city to fund a feasibility study, and speaking as your CRA funding partner, we think the appropriate funding source for that would be CRA dollars.” Sexton also pointed out that all of the locations the city had been discussing are downtown, not in east Gainesville. “We want to restate and emphasize that the county’s purpose for agreeing to the consolidation of the four CRA districts was to free up $70 million in project funding for projects that are transformational and our interest was east Gainesville.”

Poe said that the city is looking forward to discussing this at the joint city/county meeting on December 2nd. 

Free RTS rides for seniors and youths

Ward presented his idea for offering free bus rides to senior citizens (over 65 years of age) and youths (under 18). He said the city’s Department of Mobility said it would cost about $230k/year, $130k for youth and $100k for seniors. He said this “speaks directly to equity… breaking down barriers of transportation.” Ward said the “Children’s Trust of Alachua County has issued a request for applications entitled ‘Increases and Infrastructure Improvements for Programs Serving Youth.’ I can’t think of anything that is a more direct fit for this than asking the Children’s Trust of Alachua County for $100,000 to meet that youth transportation need.” He made a two-part motion: first, to “find a way to fund rate-free access to RTS for anyone under 18 and over 65… for the remainder of the fiscal year” and second, to apply for the Children’s Trust grant. 

Hayes-Santos was fine with applying for the grant, but he said, “I’m strongly against us making a decision, a big budgetary decision in the middle of our budget year, on saying we’re going to fund it… I think that’s something we should do as a part of our budget process.”

Ward continued to argue for the senior portion: “The $230,000 figure is a 12-month figure and obviously, we’re two months into the budget already. By the time it were to be implemented, probably three to four months into the fiscal year, so it’s not $200,000 to finish out the year. If we can manage to win out the $130,000 grant… You’re looking at less than $100,000 that we need to find and honestly, we’re at a point where the rubber has to start meeting the road, to use the transportation analogy… help children get to the library… help our older folks get to where they need to, and if we’re serious about it, we need to start looking for the money. This would not be the first time in my tenure that we’ve asked the manager’s office to find the money.”

Hayes-Santos said, “We should not be spending recurring dollars out of our fund balance. I think that’s a poor budgetary decision to make.” He also said that this will also be used by county residents, so the county should put in some money. 

Mayor Poe argued against the senior portion: “So here’s where I get to be the grumpy old mayor. I’m going to try to instill some fiscal consistency. We’re six weeks into our fiscal year, and we’ve gotten our first request for a recurring budget increment that was unfunded, and we did that a lot last year and it cost us, and it cost us almost not passing a budget because we unanimously, as we sat up here and saw good ideas that we really supported, we voted for them, we were excited, then we got to the end of the year where we had to approve the next year’s budget and all of those recurring things rolled in, and we were in a bad situation. I’m not going to do that this year.” He said he supported applying for the grant and asking staff to figure out how to determine how this would be implemented. If special identification cards were issued, for example, how would they determine whether the cards were being used by their owners and had not been bought or sold on the secondary market? 

Simmons said, “I think at some point, with the need to take into consideration the needs of our elderly population and make an attempt to bridge that gap, it may not be today, but I want our commissioners to understand that we have a transportation problem with our seniors.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson interjected, referring to the Director of Mobility, Melissa McCreedy,  “This is on a mildly unrelated note, but I have to say this because I don’t know if I’ll see you again. Can you stand up, please? Can you come over here? Look at this woman’s shoes. They’re fabulous. I just had to say that. Those are incredible.” Mayor Poe agreed that McCreedy always has “amazing… top-notch, world-class” shoes.

The commission voted unanimously to apply for the Children’s Trust grant. The motion to “direct the City Manager to identify a funding source to implement the senior fare-free program as soon as possible” failed, with only Ward and Simmons supporting it. 

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