Aquatic Center discussions continue

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Blue Ridge, Ga. – Discussions continue as Blue Ridge City Council Member Mike Panter asks County Commissioners to consider a feasibility study for a proposed aquatic center in Fannin County.

Aquatic Center, Fannin County, Board of Commissioners, City Council, Board of Education, Farmer’s Market, Rec Center, Study, Cost, Chairman, Jamie Hensley, Post 1, Johnny Scearce, Mike Panter, Brian Higgins

Council member Mike Panter discusses proposed aquatic center with Fannin County Board of Commissioners.

“I am speaking not necessarily on behalf of the City Council,” Panter opened, stating that at the time he was speaking as a resident who had done research into a project and is hoping to gain support from not only the Fannin County Board of Commissioners but also from Blue Ridge City Council and the Fannin County Board of Education.

“The closest swimming facility is in Blairsville and it’s owned by the hospital,” Panter said of the lack of a comparable facility in our area. He did point out that currently the City of Calhoun in Gordon County has an aquatic center but that it is aging.

Some students from the Fannin County School System make several trips a week to utilize the Calhoun facility for aquatic sports, which is a 2 hour round trip.

There has been recent discussion of Fannin County putting in a splash pad for residents. The splash pad at Meeks Park in Union County was brought up as a comparison for price. The Meeks Park splash pad was installed in 2016 with an approximate cost of $360,000.

Panter also noted Lincoln County’s splash pad with a price tag of $156,000, “The reason it was so cheap was because they filled in their pool. They already had a bathroom facility and sewer.”

The City of Blue Ridge had looked into a similar possibility of a splash pad, due to the costly repairs needed at the city’s current outdoor pool.

Panter pointed out that the current city pool repairs could have a price tag of over $100,000 and would only be able to be used three to four months each year.

The proposed aquatic center could incorporate a splash pad, along with a heated indoor pool and a health club. 

A similar plan for an aquatic center has recently been approved in Lumpkin County.  

The Lumpkin County Aquatic Center website states :

“This state-of-the art facility will not only have indoor and outdoor swimming, but will also have a lazy river and splash activities for children, outdoor rental spaces, and a therapy pool for those who desire low impact exercise or need rehabilitation after illness or surgery.”

The cost of Lumpkin County’s new endeavor is roughly $8 million, which Panter projects Fannin County to have a similar cost. Panter stated that the cost would not necessarily have to be a lump sum and that the project could be done in phases.

Using the current location of the Blue Ridge Farmer’s Market building could save at least $1 million in on site prep work according to Panter, “The city has no debt on that property whatsoever.”

“The high school themselves, they are being pushed to have an aquatics program,” Panter stated when asked if the school system was considering building its own aquatic facility but added of the general public’s ability to use a facility strictly owned by the school system, “As all of us know in the school systems, a lot of the school facilities are locked down. It’s hard to use the school facilities.”

Panter stressed that this was another reason that he felt an intergovernmental agreement between the three entities would best serve the community.

While no Commissioners seemed outright opposed to the idea of an aquatic center, concerns were expressed of the long term benefits, costs and responsibilities of such a facility. 

Fannin County Commission Chairman Jamie Hensley stated that with a project of such magnitude being proposed, he wants to make sure it would be done correctly the first time and that it is truly something that would benefit the community in the long term.

Concerns were also raised of Panter’s proposed location of the City’s Farmer’s Market building, with Post 1 Commissioner Johnny Scearce directly discussing these concerns. 

“That Farmer’s Market has been sitting there for 10 years unused,” Panter answered Scearce’s questions, “We’ve spent over $100,000 in tax payers money on the Farmer’s Market just to keep it there.” 

Brian Higgins, a long time proponent of bringing back Blue Ridge’s Farmer’s Market to the unused facility, spoke during public comments, “We are totally in agreement on the aquatic center. It’s the location that we have a difference of opinion on.”

Higgins pointed out that the Farmer’s Market is one of the few nostalgic properties left in the city limits and feels that the Rec. Center would be a more appropriate location.

Citing that it makes more sense to build an aquatic center where the county’s main sports hub already resides, Higgins also pointed out that the Rec. Center has much more land, giving Fannin County the option of expansion as need arises in the future.

Panter is hoping that a feasibility study can help point everyone in the right direction and clarify a lot of the uncertainties surrounding the proposed project.

The cost of a feasibility study could run around $75,000. 

Panter is expected to present again to all three entities once he obtains a quote. His hope is to get approval from the Fannin County Board of Commissioners, Blue Ridge City Council and the Fannin County Board of Education on splitting the cost of the study, so that everyone can get an accurate idea of what will be involved in moving forward with the project.


Featured Image: City of Blue Ridge Farmer’s Market Property

Blue Ridge’s Panter provides county with brief aquatic center synopsis

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BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Blue Ridge City Councilmember Mike Panter attended the April 27 Board of Commissioners meeting to present his idea for an aquatic and wellness center.

Though not officially on the agenda, the commissioners granted Panter time to present during public commentary. Previously, the commissioners all encouraged the city council to publicly present the idea at a county meeting.

He began by stating he wants to develop a communal space for the city, county, and school on the unused farmer’s market property. The area’s been closed for almost 12 years according to Mayor Donna Whitener.

Intended property for the building.

The proposed aquatic and wellness center would include an indoor heated pool, outdoor splash pad, two indoor gyms, indoor playground, fitness center, wellness center, two multipurpose conference rooms, and indoor/outdoor walking tracks.

Panter estimated the project will cost between $7 and $9 million since the city already owns the land – 4.91 acres. In-depth cost analysis wasn’t addressed during the meeting.

“Lot of opportunity, a lot of money that can be raised for a facility of this size. Now $7 to $8 million dollars sounds like a lot of money. If we wait 10 years from now that same facility will be $25 million based on our growth,” Panter explained, “What I’m proposing is that the city of Blue Ridge do a joint venture with the school system and the county government to see if we can use this piece of property, we’ve got sitting right here in the heart of our community.”

The project could be completed in phases. According to the handouts provided by Panter, phase one would include the main building and pool. The pool would be enclosed during phase two with PEMB and openable glass doors.

Panter commented that the center could be a profitable venture for the county, city, and school. Under the current plan, volunteers would predominately operate the facility. The city would pay for the three or four full-time employees.

“If we continue to allow our land to be developed to go high-end commercial to people outside of our community, that land’s not going to be recreated for us down the road. And one of the things I talked to the council about, I said ‘why don’t we take this facility and see if we can work with the county and school system and put something together,” Panter explained.

He added that SPLOST, LOST, hotel/motel tax, and possibly grants could pay for a portion of the project. According to the materials provided, the aquatic and wellness center might qualify as a tourism product development under Georgia Code 48-13-50.2(6)(A-P).

“And other ‘creation or expansion of physical attractions which are available and open to the public and which improves destination appeal to visitors, support visitors’ experience, and are used by visitors,’” the handout document stated.

The layout of the proposed facility

Panter offered that some new residents of Fannin look for tax deduction opportunities and residents could donate money toward the proposed facility. His materials cited Internal Revenue Service Code section 170 (c)(1) which pertains to charitable donations to governmental units for tax deductions if made for a public purpose.

As for SPLOST funds, typically, when citizens vote to approve a new SPLOST tax, it lists the proposed projects. An aquatic and wellness center wasn’t included in the latest list of SPLOST projects, but that doesn’t mean a county can’t divert funds for the effort.

However, Fannin has yet to move forward with the voter-approved administrative facility aside from purchasing Whitepath in 2019. The future of that building for administrative offices faces continued uncertainty with a public hearing scheduled for next week.

Additionally, any decision regarding Whitepath could affect the future of the library. While the library hasn’t appeared on a SPLOST vote either, the state did provide $1.3 million to the library for a capital outlay project – namely the construction of a new facility, either at Whitepath or elsewhere. There’s also a timetable associated with those state funds. Basically, the county has several big-ticket projects to consider before entering into an intergovernmental agreement with the city for something new.

The aquatic and wellness center will be discussed at a later meeting, and Panter intends to speak at a board of education meeting to gauge their support.

Panter campaigned on bringing a YMCA-like facility to Blue Ridge before being elected to city council. He’s tried to develop a similar facility since 1990.

Commissioners haven’t given support for Blue Ridge’s aquatic center

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BLUE RIDGE, Ga – All three Fannin County Commissioners affirmed that they haven’t committed to Blue Ridge City Council’s proposed aquatic center.

Chairman Jamie Hensley explained that the city made an initial presentation in a private meeting but hasn’t seen any follow-up plans or cost analysis.

“There’s so many unanswered questions. The questions haven’t been answered or haven’t been asked,” Hensley said.

Post Two Glenn Patterson added that the commissioners don’t know that much about the proposed pool and community center. Additionally, he hasn’t been formally approached.

Chairman Jamie Hensley

Chairman Jamie Hensley

Outgoing Post One Earl Johnson remarked, “When something gets said in another council session, it doesn’t mean it’s true in here.” He was commenting on the statements from members of Blue Ridge City Council who said the commissioners were in favor of building an aquatic center.

Johnson further stated if the council wants to propose a project to the county that they need to do so in a county meeting. Once council members present an idea within a county meeting, then it’s on record and everyone in the county will know exactly what happened. It would prevent rumors from starting.

“The biggest problems are these deals that are getting talked about outside this room,” Johnson stated.

Blue Ridge City Council meets at 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday and can overlap with one commission meeting which takes place at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday. However, Fannin County meets on the fourth Tuesday at 6 p.m. as well.

He brought up the previous annexation debacle which became a he-said, she-said on if the county was informed or not. Johnson asked if anyone saw a councilmember present anything about the annexation in a county meeting.

“We all should working in unison with the city of Blue Ridge, the city of McCaysville,” Johnson commented. “Until it starts being done the right way, the best advice I can give anybody is just don’t believe what you hear.”

Also, Johnson asked why the recreation board wasn’t consulted if Blue Ridge wants to build a new pool and if the recreation board even knew if residents wanted a new pool.

Money hasn’t been allotted by the county for a new pool and community center at this time.

Bottom line: Johnson’s parting thoughts were the county and the cities need to come together and communicate more effectively.

Post One Earl Johnson

Post One Earl Johnson

At the end of the meeting, Hensley thanked Johnson for his dedication to Fannin County and for staying on while elected Post One Johnny Scearce recovered from COVID-19 related illnesses. Scearce is scheduled to take his oath of office on Friday, March 26.

Additional County Business

EMA Director Robert Graham presented the Debris Management Plan and the commissioners approved it so now the document goes to the state. The document could result in an extra two percent in disaster match money from FEMA.

Liquid springs for the second new ambulance was approved for a total cost of $12,300. The springs were necessary because the chassis on the new ambulances sits higher than expected and makes it hard to load patients. It will take two to three weeks for the liquid springs to be applied and it will hopefully last as long as the truck is in service.

Director of Public Works Zack Ratcliff presented the LMIG Safety Project from GDOT which is a crash-related action plan. GDOT will provide $350,000 to fix roads with high traffic accident statistics. The county would have to match 30 percent, but the number could come down with more data. GDOT advised Salem Road receive improvements with the safety project money. Some of the safety improvements include striping, width, and right of way criteria.

Johnson advised making sure roads are wide enough before overlaying them because every time a road is overlaid it becomes narrower.

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