Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- No one knows exactly when the rumblings of discontent over planned construction of a library/conference center in Southwest Lee County grew into a cause.

Maybe it was after a special called meeting of the Lee County Commission on Aug. 13, at which no less than five arguments broke out between commissioners, library board members and members of the audience.

Or maybe it was a few days earlier, when bids on the project came in a million dollars over budget.

No matter the reason, a small but vocal group of Lee County citizens has used the library/conference center as a rallying cry to try and unseat members of the commission during the most recent election cycle, to oppose a recently passed special-purpose local-option sales tax referendum and to express dismay over the condition of various county roads in need of repair.

Even one of the five members of the Lee County Commision, Smithville/Chokee Commissioner Dennis Roland, has used the library/conference center to castigate his colleagues, contending on a number of public occasions, "The only people I know of in this county who are for the project are the four people who sit to my right on the Board of Commissioners."

Still, county voters overwhelmingly approved a 2007 SPLOST referendum that included $2 million for construction of the library/conference center, and on March 15 an even larger percentage approved continuation of the special tax even though it included $1.2 million in funding to complete the project.

NO EITHER/OR PROJECT

Opponents have tried to separate the project into two components: library, which most say they want, and conference center, which they say they don't want and the county doesn't need.

But Commission Vice Chairman Rick Muggridge said the project has never been an either/or proposition.

"In January of 2009, we commissioners were at a strategic work session at Callaway Gardens when we got a call from Rep. (Ed) Rynders saying the state of Georgia planned to extend its bond package," Muggridge said. "We were, I think, No. 18 on the list of communities in line to get funding for a library, but Rep. Rynders said we might have an opportunity to move up on that list.

"We discussed the matter, and Rep. Rynders even stopped off on his way home from Atlanta to talk about it with us, and we all agreed that a library/conference center would be a great addition to our community. There was never talk of a standalone library; it was always a library/conference center. There was not a naysayer in the room, and it's only been recently that one in that group flip-flopped and started talking against the project."

Roland said he opposes the project on a number of levels, from borrowing money to complete it to building an "unnecessary facility" at a time when the county is facing a funding crunch to the location of the planned facility.

"If we're going to borrow between $1 million and $2 million, we should be borrowing it to build more fire/EMS stations," Roland said. "We're worried about not getting the state funding for this thing ($2 million in state bonds will be used to help fund the project) and about how it would look for Ed Rynders, but we were going to get a library anyway. All he did was move it up a year or two.

"I also think we're putting the library in the wrong location. It seems Mr. (Ed) Duffy (the commission chairman) and some of the other commissioners are more worried about taking care of their buddies with the Oakland (Partners development) group than they are doing what's in the best interest of the county. A place like the land we own near Grand Island (golf club) would be a much better location."

GROWING AREA

Duffy pointed out in an interview Friday that the site for the proposed library/conference center project, on eight acres of land off U.S. Highway 82 at Hickory Grove Drive, was not his or the commission's choice. The Lee County Library Board selected that site from a list of eight proposed locations. It's also, he pointed out, close to the county's largest residential growth area, including several of Lee's newest and largest subdivisions, and the future site of as many as 600 planned new homes.

Duffy also noted that some $642,000 in SPLOST funds have already been spent on the project, including $248,000 for land, $75,000 for water lines and the remainder in architectural fees (to SRJ Architects of Albany) and other associated costs.

The commission chairman offered evidence that the Oakland Partners group had given as much as it had gotten in the deal.

"Oakland Partners donated 2 1/2 acres of land valued at $65,000 an acre, and they paved 850 feet of West Oakland Parkway at their cost of $216,000," Duffy said. "Those folks have made investments in this project, too."

County Library Director Claire Leavy said her concern has always been and remains providing services for a growing portion of the county.

"I came on here in 1997, and it has always been the (library) board's vision to serve the needs of all the people in the county," Leavy said. "With this project, we'll finally be able to meet that goal.

"I live at the library every day, and the question we get every day is 'When will we get a library facility closer to our neighborhood?' It's a legitimate question. When we built a branch at Redbone, that was a fast-growing area. Now the growth is in the southwestern part of the county."

The commission initially figured the project to come in around $5.2 million, but when bids were opened, $6.3 million was the lowest one. SRJ architect Sonya Spalinger, who headed up the project, was asked to come up with a redesign using value engineering to cut costs. Spalinger worked with Leavy, county Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander and then-interim County Administrator Al Crace to find areas where costs could be cut.

The new design has been approved for bids, and a bid opening is scheduled for April 21. A pre-bid conference is set for April 12.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Spalinger said much of the cost reduction in the project has come from downsizing the conference center capacity from an initial 400 to closer to 300.

"There's a lot of work involved when you have to make changes in a project like this, but that's part of what we do," she said. "Construction costs, which were low for quite some time, have started to go back up, though, so that's become a concern. But we're pretty confident that the bids will come in OK this time.

"We've redesigned the conference center and done some value engineering, but we've pretty much left the library intact."

Leavy said the library will include expanded services such as wireless access, a family-friendly design and a coffee shop for patrons' convenience.

"Really, our only concern is that we open a library branch to the public in that area that will meet their needs," she said. "I think the commission is right to see the value and the return on investment a facility like this will bring."

Muggridge, meanwhile, said it's time for the commission to move forward with projects like the library/conference center so that Lee County can become one of the state's truly progressive communities.

"This community is full of people who are ready for us to become a progressive community," he said. "Sometimes I think we've had some of our success in spite of ourselves. To compete with the Gwinnett Counties and the Romes of the state to bring jobs and people to our community, we've got to offer more than what those places offer.

"I know there are people here who want the community to stay exactly as it is, but that's not reality. And all the negative comments I'm hearing have become almost irrelevant to me. People can either get on board or not. But I'm not really concerned if the vote to move the county forward is 4-1 as opposed to 5-0. While I resent the negative comments and the cheap shots of one of my colleagues and some others in the county, I have every reason to believe this county is ready to move forward."