In an announcement spiced with the salty language of a giddy mood, city and school district leaders together offered Columbus welcome news Wednesday:
Longstanding disagreements over how to use the open land left around the Columbus Public Library had been resolved.
An agreement both Columbus Council and the Muscogee County School Board approve of but are yet to formally ratify could mark the end of a lawsuit filed by proponents of building a park on the acreage. That lawsuit went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court before justices there sent it back to Muscogee Superior Court, where the plaintiffs sought mediation.
One of those plaintiffs, local businessman Sam Rawls, said he was withdrawing from the suit, having been told this new agreement is the best deal park proponents can get. Josh McKoon, one of the attorneys representing park advocates, said other plaintiffs also are withdrawing, but he had not talked to all of them. “I’m very pleased with what’s on the table,” McKoon said of the agreement, adding that his clients still will wait to see if both the board and council approve it.
Columbus Council is expected to approve the agreement on Jan. 26, the school board on Jan. 30.
So far two projects have been completed on the land east of Rigdon Road and south of Macon Road, once the site of Columbus Square, the city’s first shopping mall: the library and a new Muscogee school administration building. Yet to be built there are three city government facilities: a swimming complex or natatorium, a citizen services center and a parking garage to serve staff and visitors.
Columbus voters in 1999 approved a sales tax to purchase the shopping mall property and build the $50.4 million library. After that was completed in 2005, the rest of the old mall land was turned over to the school district, which with operating funds had bought adjacent land formerly occupied by a Sears store. That became the site of the new school administration building, which opened this past fall.
The school district agreed in 2007 to give the city 6 nearby acres for the natatorium, service center and parking garage, projects for which the city soon will solicit proposals. What would happen to the rest of the property, including 5 acres south of Lindsay Creek once occupied by a movie theater, was unresolved until the agreement announced Wednesday.
Here are its provisions:
— To the 6 acres given the city for the natatorium, service center and parking garage, the school district will add 3 for a total of 9 acres, allowing sufficient space to accommodate all three buildings.
— The city in turn will give the school district the 5 acres where the movie theater used to be. Some of that land is in the Lindsay Creek flood plain, and that limits uses.
— A little more than $1 million left in 1999 sales tax revenue will be used to remove asphalt from the remaining 14 acres, implement erosion-control measures and seed the soil.
That money, which according to the agreement totals $1,050,412, belongs to the school district, which is to authorize its library board to spend the funds on removing the pavement and planting the expanse. Previously some critics said the school district could not spend funds on that, because it by law could spend money only for projects with an educational purpose. Asked about that Wednesday, Judy Thomas, Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington’s special assistant, said: “Who the hell cares? Just get the asphalt up.”
School board chairman Philip Schley similarly was outspoken when asked about an old proposal to build a mix of housing and retail development near the library, a concept touted by an Atlanta consultant — “the jackass from Atlanta’s plan,” Schley called it. He said the board discarded that idea years ago.
Schley said he long had hoped to come up with a way to provide a park-like area near the library, and was pleased that the city and school district finally had completed a “long and arduous” journey to reach that goal.
“We’re going to have a truly remarkable campus here in Midtown.... There will be 20 acres of green space, all contiguous,” Schley said. Wetherington agreed: “It is going to be a showplace when it's completed,” he said.
Frank Starr, the current library board chair, said the board will start discussing how to proceed with its work next week.
Lindsay Creek for now will remain unaffected, though the city and the nonprofit group MidTown Inc. have commissioned a flood-plain survey which later could result in removing the creek’s concrete canal and restoring a more natural creek bank.
The driving force behind the lawsuit over building a library park was Columbus businessman David Rothschild, who died of cancer Nov. 10 at age 88.
Just days before his death, he appealed to Wetherington to resolve the dispute.
“He was on his deathbed and his wife was holding the phone up to his ear,” Wetherington said. “He said ‘Jim, I want you to solve this stand-off we’ve had with the school board.’ ... He said, ‘Jim, you can do it if you’ll get involved.’ It touched me.”
But Wetherington wasn’t sure how to work it out. He consulted attorney Frank Myers. Myers said he contacted at-large school board member Cathy Williams. Williams told him to get Schley’s approval, and the board would follow.
And so the mayor and the school board chairman began talking one-on-one, repeatedly — in six to eight conversations, sometimes just when they happened to be attending the same event.
“He wanted to resolve it as bad as I did,” Wetherington said. “We kept coming back and we kept coming back until it was resolved.... I believe Mr. Rothschild would be happy today, if he was still living, that we had come to an agreement.”
When they hit a hangup, they called Myers, and he helped resolve it.
“This never would have happened without Frank Myers,” said Williams. “He got them together. He played shuttle diplomacy on trying to keep it simple.”
She said one final sticking point was this: Who owned the last of the 1999 library sales tax money — the city or the school district?
“He finally got them to realize that it was the taxpayers’ money,” Williams said.
Of the 5-acre movie theater property the school district’s getting, Schley said it could be used as a transfer point for students changing buses. Teresa Tomlinson, executive director of the MidTown Inc. organization that’s working to revitalize the commercial property bordering the library land, said the public facilities represent a $100 million investment by the city and school district, and that’s going to attract commercial investment.
Because of the natatorium project, hotels are showing an interest in property nearby, she said.