Community committee gets four months to develop viable Cain Center plan

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Listen to the podcast above for more thoughts on this story from reporter Michael Hannigan.)

By Michael V. Hannigan/HCN

The long-running saga of the Cain Center rehabilitation project took another twist Tuesday night, but this time there’s a clock ticking.

During their regular meeting, council members decided to give a group of community members and activists until April 2 to come up with a viable plan for moving forward with the Cain Center. The committee is to be led by Steve Grant.

Details about the community committee and how it will operate were limited Tuesday.

The move came after two hours of town hall-style discussion between the council and an overflow audience during which all but one audience member spoke in favor of saving the facility.

Why the deadline? Because the City has already borrowed the money, which means it is paying the interest on that money. Every day the City holds on to the more than $5 million in Certificates of Obligation set aside for the Cain Center costs taxpayers.

In the first year, the interest on the money borrowed for the Cain Center was about $350,000.

That balance between cost vs. benefit is at the heart of the Cain Center debate.

“We do have to look at the figures,” said Councilman Aaron Smith. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t looking at the figures and I believe what we have before us today, how much it is, is too expensive for the City of Athens.”

Smith went on to say that he also thought any project costing millions of dollars should go before the voters as a bond, a thought echoed by Councilman Robert Gross.

“I believe the taxpayers ought to be able to have a say in what is going to be used when we are talking about millions of dollars,” Smith said.

So there are actually two issues in play. First, should the Cain Center project move forward at all? Second, if the decision is made to try and move forward, should the already borrowed money be sent back and a bond election held?

Which means after the community committee led by Grant presents its findings, council members could do one of three things:

— Move forward with whatever plan is developed by the committee using the money from the Certificates of Obligation.

— Send back the money from the Certificates of Obligation, but move forward with the committee’s plan through a bond election.

— Send back the money from the Certificates of Obligation and ask the Cain Foundation to remove the City of Athens as a trustee of the Cain Center.

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To learn more about how this issue has developed, please read our story from August 28. That post was written after a rare meeting between Mayor Monte Montgomery and area reporters and details some of the problems that led to Tuesday night’s decision.

((Follow Michael on Twitter @mvhannigan))

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