KINGSPORT — The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen took the plunge Wednesday night and voted to build an aquatic center in the Meadowview area of town and co-locate the facility with the new YMCA.
The BMA made the decision during a special called meeting Wednesday night where for more than three hours city leaders and area residents engaged in a passionate discussion and debate on the issue.
Over 30 people were in attendance Wednesday evening, with several speaking in favor of locating the aquatic center in downtown, along grocery store row. Some asked questions about liability, accessibility to the Meadowview site and the reason for co-locating with the YMCA. Two fitness center owners also voiced their concerns about how co-locating the center with the YMCA would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
However, one man in attendance spoke in favor of the Meadowview site, saying it would be a good site for competitive swimming.
“Downtown is hard to navigate and will scare visitors off. As an outsider, to me it’s an obvious choice to have a facility to benefit the community financially and not be a drain on the city,” he said.
At the end of the evening, the BMA voted 4-3 to co-locate the aquatic center with the YMCA and 4-3 to build the facility in the Meadowview area of town. Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote and Aldermen Ken Marsh and Pat Shull voted against both measures.
The BMA has been considering building an aquatic center somewhere within the city for more than 18 months. The idea is to build a $12.6 million indoor/outdoor facility, locate it with the YMCA’s new facility, and for the YMCA to operate the center to help reduce operating costs at the center.
The three sites considered were Legion Pool, grocery store row (Sullivan and Clinchfield) and the Meadowview area (between the driving range and Cattails golf course).
The Meadowview site was recommended twice by city staff, the parks and recreation advisory committee, and by a citizens committee appointed by Mayor Dennis Phillips. Three other reports recently conducted — engineering, demographics and traffic — all recommend the Meadowview site.
According to the engineering report, the grocery row site would cost $7 million in site work, Legion Pool would cost nearly $5 million, while Meadowview would cost $3.7 million. These costs do not include construction costs.
After about an hour of public comments and questions, Marsh made the motion the city proceed with building an aquatic center without co-locating with the YMCA. Mallicote seconded. After a brief discussion, Marsh’s motion failed by a 3-4 vote, and soon after the BMA voted 4-3 to co-locate with the YMCA.
“If we compete with our own taxpaying citizens, that makes no sense to me. Why would we inadvertently put pressure on these people?” Marsh asked. “The fact the YMCA is prepared to build a swimming facility takes the burden off the taxpayer. Co-location sinks this community into tremendous expense, and it makes no economic sense or operational sense. We should not be competing with our own businesses.”
Flint Gray, president of the YMCA, confirmed the organization would build a pool with its new facility if it did not co-locate with the city’s aquatic center.
“Let the YMCA build their own facility. I think we should go back to reconsidering building one world-class outdoor pool in the Legion area,” Shull said.
Stan Pace, owner of Gold Star Fitness, said it was not fair for the city to use tax dollars to give the YMCA a competitive advantage. Stan Johnson, owner of the Great Body Company, said putting the YMCA and the aquatic center together would put him and other fitness centers at a disadvantage.
Mallicote said he had changed his mind on co-location because of the financial disadvantage to the other gyms in town.
“I can’t get comfortable with that,” he said.
After the co-location issue had been settled, Alderwoman Valerie Joh made the motion to locate the aquatic center in the Meadowview area of town. Alderman Larry Munsey seconded.
However, Shull made a motion to defer the vote until the BMA’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 16. Marsh seconded. Shull said he has received all kinds of communication from citizens on the issue, with many saying they need more information on the aquatic center.
“I think it doesn’t hurt us to let them know more about it. It doesn’t hurt us at all to defer to the next business meeting,” Shull said.
The motion failed on a 2-5 vote.
One of the concerns about the Meadowview site was that it was too far away from town and that kids would not be able to walk or ride their bikes to the new facility. Leisure Services Director Tom Bowman said a two-month survey earlier this year of Legion Pool attendees found less than 4 percent walked or biked to the pool.
During the end of the meeting, Mallicote made a final pitch for the downtown site.
“Kingsport needs an aquatic center to be downtown. It’s more convenient for more Kingsport residents than Meadowview. If the goal is to make the center only accessible to the affluent and tourists, then absolutely it should go to Meadowview. If it’s something for the entire community, then it needs to go downtown,” Mallicote said. “Supermarket row is blighted, rundown and ugly. If the city doesn’t redevelop it, who’s going to do it? If the city can’t afford to do it, point to the developer who could do it. The reasons stated why we can’t do it downtown are the reasons why Kingsport should put it downtown.
“It’s the heart of Kingsport, and 20 or 30 years down the road, we’ll live or die by the strength of downtown.”
Soon after the BMA voted 4-3 to locate the aquatic center in Meadowview.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Munsey proposed leaving the Legion Pool open after the city builds the new aquatic center.
“I understand the sensitivity to the Legion Pool, and I’d like to propose that since it just has a $65,000 subsidy, I suggest that whatever resolution we come to, we keep Legion Pool like it is, at least a year after we build the other facility to see how it goes,” Munsey said. “If it’s utilized and there’s a need for that, leave it open indefinitely. I say leave it open and let’s do both.”
Munsey’s suggestion appeared to have the support of a majority of the BMA.