fbpx

“It’s part of all of our community”: County Commission asks City to consider full restoration of Thelma Boltin Center

Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell speaks at the August 28 joint City/County meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At their joint meeting on August 28, the Alachua County Commission voted to ask the Gainesville City Commission to reconsider a previous decision to do a “partial restoration” of Thelma Boltin Center and instead fully restore the building.

In response to emails and calls from the public and a comment from County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler at the August 8 County Commission meeting, the Gainesville City Commission’s April decision to “partially restore” the Thelma Boltin Center was placed on the agenda of this joint meeting. 

Before City of Gainesville Project Manager Peter McNiece could even start his presentation, County Commissioner Ken Cornell made a motion that the City Commission reconsider the direction they had given related to the Thelma Boltin Center “and consider a partial restoration instead of a demolition and reconstruction.”

City Commissioner Bryan Eastman pointed out that the City Commission had voted to do a “partial restoration and reconstruction” and asked McNiece to make his presentation.

History of the building

McNiece reviewed the history of the Thelma Boltin Center, which is located at the southern edge of the Duck Pond and was built during World War II to provide a place for servicemen to relax and participate in recreational activities like dances. McNiece said there was a shortage of materials when it was built, “and as a result, the building has some structural deficiencies that have led us to where we are today.” He said the building was last renovated in 1999 and has “fallen into considerable disrepair.”

The City was working on plans for a renovation when the roof of the building collapsed in December 2020, revealing major structural problems. In April 2023, the City Commission decided to keep two facades of the auditorium and demolish the rest of the facility, rebuilding it with a similar architectural style at a cost of $5.6 million, funded by Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP). McNiece said the next step is for the City Commission to approve a $469,000 contract to do the design work for the building, and that will be on the consent agenda of the commission’s September 7 meeting.

Another option is to do just the work required to fix the roof and address some HVAC and electrical problems for under half a million dollars. 

City Commissioner Ed Book said the third option is to spend $5.4-$6.2 million (with no guarantee of how high it could go if additional deficiencies were found) to fully restore the building, and the fourth option is to do nothing. He pointed out that the City’s Historic Preservation Board recommended the partial restoration option at an estimated cost of $5.6 million. Book said he had voted for the “partial restoration” option because it “would maintain the flair.. and would involve increased size, increased program space.”

Eastman: “If we want this building to exist for generations to come, there has to be a determination as to what kind of investments we’re going to make”

City Commission Bryan Eastman said he initially thought it would be “a no-brainer” to just repair the building for under half a million, as opposed to spending over $5 million to restore it, but he changed his mind after touring the building and realizing that the walls are not reinforced by steel and have been damaged by termites and water. He added, “Really, at the end of the day, if we want this building to exist for generations to come, there has to be a determination as to what kind of investments we’re going to make to the real underlying issues that are part of that building.”

Cornell said it wasn’t his intention “to dive into your decision… I would just ask that you [take some time] to reconsider that, versus putting it on [the consent agenda]… You’re the ones telling us that you have significant budget constraints, and the citizens are telling you, ‘Don’t spend the money’… It’s up to you, totally.”

City Commissioner Casey Willits said, “It’s not so much a budget issue, because… we’ve got a lot of Wild Spaces Public Places money over the course of the next couple of years… We’ve made a decision to spend a very big chunk of it in one place.” Willits said he would rather have $5 million to get a good park in southwest Gainesville, his district, but he realized there’s “a whole bunch of stuff in front of my park.” He pointed out that the County had split part of their WSPP funds between the municipalities, “and if y’all want to give us 100% instead of splitting it nine ways… I welcome it.” He said the City needs to consider the capabilities they will want 20 or 30 years in the future and that he didn’t think the City Commission would change their minds.

Prizzia: “I feel like this sets up a pretty dangerous precedent”

Prizzia said she understood why Cornell wants the City to reconsider, but “I feel like this sets up a pretty dangerous precedent of us going back and forth across, every time they don’t agree with something we’ve decided or every time we don’t agree… I know it wasn’t an easy decision to make… and I’m not saying that I agree with the decision that was made, but I also don’t feel like it’s my place to weigh in on that decision. Because it’s not.”

Public comment

During public comment, Matthew Hurst pointed out that “partial restoration” doesn’t sound like what it is, which is “everything has to be torn down except for parts of two walls… I think it’s more that people want a different building there.”

Melanie Barr said the Center is a “significant state and national building. There’s no other building in the state of Florida that was built for recreation for the soldiers… We have a sagging roof, no doubt about it. But there are special category grants for a historic building–half a million dollars that could have been applied for.”

At that point, Prizzia said the City Commission no longer had a quorum because the Mayor and two commissioners had left earlier to do a press conference about Idalia, and then Willits also left. Prizzia added that she had to leave at 8:00. She said the public could continue with their comments because the County Commission still had a quorum, and that was the body that would be voting on the motion.

Robert Mounts said the “partial restoration is really a demolition” because the City wants “to build a whole new building, get more bang for the buck.” He said they should “do it right… under the principles of historic preservation.” Prizzia left after Mounts spoke.

Eastman: “The decision that we made was one that I thought was a good compromise”

After public comment, Eastman said, “There are no easy answers… The decision that we made was one that I thought was a good compromise position between a full, complete tear-down, which was what many people were pushing for, and the sort of band-aid option, as we talked about, and then the full restoration, which was so prohibitively expensive while still not getting it back to… a place that people would actually be able to see the arts, they would be able to be a part of a community, they would be able to meet with one another.” Eastman asked the County Commissioners to not vote on the motion, as they also wouldn’t appreciate it if the City Commission questioned their decisions on Dogwood Village or the meat processing facility: “I don’t think that is a productive use of the way that we govern.”

Cornell said if the County Commission makes a decision that City Commissioners get a lot of emails about, “I would have no problem with us reconsidering that decision… I would also say that this is my district as well… so I feel perfectly appropriate that we should be talking about this.”

Cornell: “I would ask that y’all consider the full restoration”

Cornell said that after listening to the public, “I don’t think you should do a band-aid. And so I would ask that y’all consider the full restoration” and work with the Friends of Thelma Boltin to raise money to pay for anything over the initial estimate, similar to what the County did with Camp Cuscowilla.

Book said that if they allocated more money to a full restoration, other projects planned for WSPP funds would not be completed, so if the County Commission really wanted them to reconsider, they should consider putting up some of their WSPP money.

Cornell said his understanding was that the full restoration was $5.4 million, less than the “partial restoration,” although it has more uncertainty. He suggested moving forward with the full restoration and asking the Friends of Thelma Boltin to start raising money, “and then if you have cost overruns, come back to the County… I don’t want to make your decision. All I’m asking for is that you all reconsider it and have a discussion because I can’t find anyone [that agrees] with your decision.”

Book pointed out that other benefits of the “partial restoration” were that the square footage would increase and the space could be made more useful for different types of programming. 

Wheeler: “I call it environmental Alzheimer’s”

Wheeler said, “I’m all about historic preservation, and I’m all about trying to retain as many of our iconic places as possible in the community because they’re the way I navigate through the city. It’s really hard when you go through and all of the old sites that you use to orient yourself are gone. I call it environmental Alzheimer’s, you know, you don’t know where you are anymore. It’s because the environment has changed so desperately. But I also know that there’s another generation coming on behind us who may not even care about this.”

City Commission Desmon Duncan-Walker said she looks at other parts of the world that are able to maintain buildings for 400 years or more, and “I would love to see us really begin to be intentional about the fabric of this community… Equitable development, for me, is about historic and heritage preservation, as well.” She said she would rather have these conversations in public than for County Commissioners to “curse us out under your breath… I’m always willing to have these types of conversations.”

County Commission Vice Chair Mary Alford said she would appreciate it if the City Commission had “another conversation. I feel weird asking it… but I do believe that it’s part of all of our community and all of our history.”

Motion and vote

Cornell restated the motion, which was to ask that the City “reconsider the current direction related to the Thelma Boltin Center and consider a full restoration instead of a partial restoration. And also consider working with the Friends of Thelma Boltin.”

The motion was approved 4-0, with Prizzia absent.

  • Four hundred and sixty nine thousand dollars FOR DESIGN WORK!?!?
    Wonder who’s friend will be providing that disservice?
    The key number that’s apparent is the “69” following the 400k.
    This needs a serious audit.

    • That’s absurd! The place is smaller than many private homes. No need to purchase land. The original blueprints are probably on file somewhere and could easily be modified for the purpose of restoration meeting modern codes. Large auditorium spaces are cheaper than ones with lots of interior walls. These figures make me wonder if this is a money laundering scheme. Remember this the next time the City asks for “just an additional penny tax”.

  • Sure, full restoration. It’s more of that free money that taxpayers have so much of! Market grace needed more money so county commission pitch in… so generous with our money 😏

  • Mr. Cornell, it is NOT your money to fritter away on what should be city projects. Period. Just because they are as incompetent as the other Democrat cities are run, doesn’t mean the county has to waste even more money than it already does. Fix the roads. THAT IS A PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY of the BOCC, along with public safety.

  • “ we’ve got a lot of Wild Spaces Public Places money ”

    When I voted for the Wild Spaces Public Places, I was under the impression that the money was to be used to purchase environmentally sensitive land like around Newmans Lake, not for pet projects.
    Do we really need another public monument to city commissioners in power? Why not sell this property along with the GRU 14 acres downtown and others that are not being used to offset the financial shortfall they seem to always be having?

    • That’s just one of the reasons people with some semblance of common sense didn’t vote for it. How often and long are voters going to continue believing what the commissions are telling them?
      One might say, “you’ve been punked!”

    • Ooorrrr, lets stop buying land off the tax roles and stop voting in our own tax hikes like crazy people would do.

  • I am at the end of my rope with the spending. They need to make due, just like I have to, until they have the money. We don’t have it now.

  • How many gov’t subsidized venues does the Duckpond need? Bolton was built before other downtown private venues were available. There were churches, however. Now, some private venues have been taken over by gov’t and could be used instead: Matheson House and Melting Pot restaurant, Thomas Hotel /center, Reserve Center, MLK Center, and a few public parks (Roper, Reserve, Tom Petty, the Citizens Field complex, plus adjacent downtown and Pleasant Street parks). That’s much more than any other neighborhood amenities and gov’t owned. Add in the Wooly and other private venues nearby.
    How many do they need?
    Let Bolton decay and cover with vines. It’ll be a monument to history like an old Spanish fort. Just keep the vagrants out.

  • Things get old.

    The Thelma Boltin Center is a product of FDR’s New Deal program and, according to the inspecting engineers, was constructed far below code-standard materials and methods.

    Time, termites, and poor maintenance caught up with the structure and it is far more prudent to secure the memories and let the structure pass.

    A rebuild would be far safer, cost efficient, and can be tailored to the benefit of the community today.

    Keep the plaque.

    • It can still be used after removing the wood roof, rusty metal and trim. Like a masonry shell of ruins used in Rome and other places for outdoor events. It’d be beautiful with new lighting and trimmed vines.

    • It’s a solid block building that needs a new roof an 2 trysses replaced.

      We have been told it *might* have have termites, that it *might* have been built with substandard concrete, that it *might* have some other unknown problems.

      These alleged potential structural problems were raised only after someone decided they wanted to build a different building there. The building was in community use until this city shut it down in March 2020 for the pandemic response..

      Again, it is a solid block building that needs a new roof and 2 trusses replaced.

  • I thought the city was in a financial crisis!!! Yes, No !!! I can think of a lot better ways to spend this money.

  • I agree that $469k is way too much for design. Perhaps the city should contact UF to see if their architecture program might be interested in taking some part in the project. At a minimum you would expect them to be eager to work on the survey of the existing and remaining structure, including the original design.

    “The University of Florida Master of Historic Preservation degree encompasses an interdisciplinary study of the basic and applied skills in historic preservation, anthropology, archeology, architecture, building construction, cultural tourism, history, interior design, landscape architecture, museum studies, and urban …

    Master of Historic Preservation

    UF College of Design, Construction and Planning
    https://dcp.ufl.edu › historic-preservation › degrees › mhp

  • The historical importance is non-existent, the architecture is unremarkable, the City does not have the money, and 99% of Gainesville citizens have never and will never set foot in this space. There is nothing worth saving.

    Any politician championing this project is either expecting direct kickbacks or using the construction and planning contracts to recruit/reward campaign donors.

    • Welcome to your opinion of course, but buildings gain historic significance as they age, this one has a backstory of interest based on patriotism, and it’s location and interior space made it a very pleasant place when I attended an event there in the 70’s. Is it worth the budget? That’s the question, and the city should be looking into alternative sources.

      As to kickbacks, that’s BS and you must know it. You do jail time for that and there have been no examples of that in local government here for ever.

      • Kickbacks aren’t always monetary in nature, there may be favors for yourself, family members or others. You having been in construction, farming and other careers should know that.

    • Got to love the latest installment of Commission Theater.
      The county doesn’t want to do the meat plant so they have a joint meeting where they blame their no votes on Newberry’s desire that the county fix the roads. Then they have a joint meeting for the city to propose that the county spend more to help the hobos that are concentrated in the city. Now the county proposes that the city spend more to maintain some duckpond relic. They all seem to do a much better job managing other people’s business than they do their own.

  • Obviously the City can not afford or has neglected general maintenance on this building for many many years in order for the roof to fall in. Why pour money into something you can’t financially maintain is idiotic.
    It’s been closed since the pandemic. I think the citizens of Gainesville will and can survive without it just like it has the last couple of years. Time to raze and sale the property to save on insurance ( it has to be astronomical at this point) and generate some income thru the sale and future property taxes.

  • This is a giant waste of time and money for a building that nobody really cares about. Most do not even know it exists and it serves no purpose to the general public. Better to allocate the funds elsewhere.

  • >