Apr. 17—Dalton City Council member Tyree Goodlett said the first time he heard that the John Davis Recreation Center might be remodeled rather than rebuilt was when he was contacted by a reporter.
"The plan was to rebuild it," he said. "We've been patching that rec center up for a long time. The people were promised a new recreation center, and now that I know that may not be on the table I'm going to be making some calls to find out what is going on."
A four-year, $66 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by voters in May 2020 included in the referendum $11.175 million for renovations to the John Davis Recreation Center and to Heritage Point Park. The SPLOST proposal as presented to the public included that the city of Dalton would build a new John Davis Recreation Center.
City officials had planned to use $8.5 million of SPLOST money to completely rebuild the rec center. But council members asked City Administrator Jason Parker and Parks and Recreation Department officials in March 2020 to take another look at the rec center project after all of the bids came in over budget. Council members asked that Parker look at alternatives, including remodeling the existing building.
In the interim, Hull Property Group, the Augusta-based developer that owns the Dalton Mall, donated to the city the lease on 8.38 acres of undeveloped land near the AMC movie theaters where the city plans to build an aquatics center. The remainder of that lease is 57 years.
"That is really our top priority right now," said Mayor David Pennington in an interview last week.
Pennington, who was not in office when the SPLOST project list was drawn up in 2019 but signed the intergovernmental agreement determining how the money will be spent, said current plans are for the rec center to be remodeled, not rebuilt. He repeated that in an interview earlier this week.
"I can't even imagine what their conception was doing John Davis," he said. "It's not even used that much any more. The (Mack Gaston Community Center) is by far more used. Does John Davis need some work? Yeah. It needs a new roof. It needs some serious cleaning up, no doubt. But to spend $8.5 million? I can't imagine what that's for."
Pennington also said that any money saved on the rec center might be used to fund the aquatics center.
"When you look at the ballot, it doesn't say how much money was going to be spent there," he said. "It says projects such as stormwater, John Davis, some other things. There was a gross dollar figure. But it was not split up on what was going to be done. We could easily build the aquatics center there (at the rec center site). We think we've found a better place."
The referendum specifically outlined $11.175 million for renovations to the John Davis Recreation Center and Heritage Park. An aquatics center is not mentioned in the referendum.
Pennington said he doesn't believe people who voted for the SPLOST expected that the rec center would be completely rebuilt, noting that the referendum language simply said "renovation."
"That was just something that was thrown in," he said. "They were looking at the big park down in the south end of the county."
The SPLOST contained $13 million for Riverbend Park, which is under construction off the south bypass near Southeast Whitfield High School.
But a 16-member citizens advisory committee that drafted a recommended project list for the 2020 SPLOST included a complete rebuild of the rec center on that list.
"It was presented to the committee (by the city recreation department) as its primary need," said Chris Shiflett, who chaired that committee.
The plan called for, among other things, new administrative offices, a gym and two basketball courts. The current rec center has just one basketball court.
"We made a recommendation, but we didn't have any authority," Shiflett said.
Asked if he thought people who voted for the SPLOST expected a complete rebuild of the rec center, Shiflett said, "It was on the list of projects we recommended. If they read that list, I would assume the average citizen would expect the John Davis Center to be rebuilt. I don't know how closely people were looking at that list or what the city was communicating. I'm sure some people voted based on that list."
In the run up to the SPLOST vote, city officials never gave any indication they would not rebuild the rec center.
Former Whitfield County Board of Commissioners chairman Lynn Laughter said council members never indicated to her that the rec center would not be rebuilt.
"I was disappointed to read that in the paper," she said about Pennington's remarks.
She said she worries about how the city's actions might affect future SPLOST votes.
"Nowhere on the referendum does it mention an aquatics center," she said. "The citizens committee helped build up confidence among voters in the SPLOST process, and if the city uses SPLOST money to build an aquatics center, what will citizens think? And the next time we ask for a SPLOST, will they trust that we are going to do what we say we are going to do?"
Dennis Mock was mayor when the SPLOST project list was put together.
"My gut reaction was that I really hate that they made that decision," he said. "I've been to the John Davis Rec Center. We've done the math, and it really seemed that a teardown and rebuild made the most sense."
Mock said he believes voters expected the rec center to be rebuilt, not renovated, but he said he won't criticize the council members if they move in that direction.
"Having been there and done that, and not knowing everything they know, I hate to second guess them," he said. "I don't know all of what their plans are. Maybe the aquatics center will do part of what we wanted to do at John Davis, and if it's legal then I think we should support them."
Clint Muller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the state's "SPLOST law is pretty clear. You can't use the money on projects that weren't approved by the voters."
City Council member Annalee Harlan called the aquatics center "a game changer."
"That's tough," she said when asked if the city would be breaking its promise if it didn't rebuild the rec center and shifted money from one part of the community to another if it used that money for the aquatics center.
"The city has identified a different solution," she said. "But I can see how some might ask if this is fair."
Council member Derek Waugh, who is the council's liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, said plans for the rec center have simply been placed on hold and nothing has been decided.
"We will definitely do something with the John Davis Recreation Center," he said. "But we want to do something in the context of an overall plan for what is best for Dalton and what is best for the entire community. For example, two (basketball courts) were planned there. Would it be better to have one (basketball court) and a new field? With the cooperative approach we have with the county, we've got a lot of basketball courts. With the cooperative approach with the school system, we've got a lot of basketball courts. We've got two basketball courts right down the road at the Mack Gaston Community Center."
Waugh said the city isn't "scrapping anything."
"But we are slowing down and making sure we are making the best use of taxpayer dollars and doing what is best for the citizens of the community," he said. "We are looking at everything."
He also said the discussion about renovation versus rebuilding may be a question of semantics.
"If we knock the building down and build something that is new but smaller than what was planned and that gives us room for a new turf field is that a remodel, a rebuild or a renovation?" he asked.
Waugh said he believes a new field would be used far more than a second basketball court.