By Michael V. Hannigan/HCNow
The Athens City Council split on how to move forward on the Cain Center project during a workshop meeting Wednesday night.
The divide among the council members adds importance to the seating of Aaron “Bubba” Smith next month. Smith was unanimously appointed by the council to fill the unexpired term of Joe Whatley, who recently resigned. This will be Smith’s second stint as an interim council member.
The two Cain Center options gaining support Wednesday night were:
- A construction plan that would cost the City a little less than $5 million. That plan became possible with the announcement Wednesday that the Cain Foundation has committed $2.5 million for the pool area. This option would also allow the City to spend about $5 million from the Certificates of Obligation on water issues and was backed by Mayor Monte Montgomery and Councilwoman Toni Garrard Clay.
- Allow Athens residents to vote on whether to move forward on the Cain Center project with a bond election. With this option, all the Certificates of Obligation money currently set aside for the project would go to water system repairs. This option was backed by Council members Ed McCain and Robert Gross.
The biggest issue is one that council members appear to agree on, which is the belief that the decision-making process on the Cain Center was flawed from the start.
Montgomery and McCain — the only remaining members who were on the council when this process began in the summer of 2016 — are both on the record as saying council was misled regarding the true cost of the Cain Center rehabilitation. Montgomery said he didn’t believe Certificates of Obiligation should have been used during his campaign for mayor earlier this year.
McCain and Gross, who joined the council last month, also wondered about the Cain Center’s ability to sustain itself financially, something that was a problem before the City took over the facility.
McCain said, “I want to be respectful of what’s happened in this community for 30 years, but if you are talking purely on a business sense, purely economics, this business failed. This community could not support this business of the Cain Center.”
Exacerbating the debate are looming repairs to the water system that will cost in the millions.
The question now facing the council on the Cain Center is what to do after 16 months of announcements, public forums and meetings with the design team.
Montgomery and Clay, who is in her first year on the council, both want to continue with the project.
Clay said the City made a promise to residents “and we ought to deliver on that promise.”
Montomery has said he is for getting the Cain Center reopened at the right price. With the addition of the $2.5 million from the Cain Foundation, he believes that can happen. He also said he believes reducing the cost of construction will make it easier to repair.
“So we can afford it and maintain it,” he said.
McCain and Gross said they believe it is not too late to do things the right way and ask for residents to vote on the project.
“We can fix the way it was done,” Gross said. “It is such a big decision.”
McCain said, “I don’t want to continue down a road where we don’t let the citizens have a say.”
The next step isn’t expect to come until early January when Smith is seated and the council is once again full.