City divided on Chehaw funding

ALBANY, Ga. -- A divided Albany City Commission asked for more information from Chehaw Park officials Tuesday after commissioners were asked to continue subsidizing the wild animal park for another five years at $1 million a year.

Commissioners Bob Langstaff and Roger Marietta and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard asked Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter and Chehaw Park Authority Board Chairman Scott Kemp to present additional information at the commission's Aug. 20 work session so that they can consider voting on a motion by Commissioner Tommy Postell to allocate the funding.

Postell and Commissioner Christopher Pike voted to approve the funding request at $1 million per year, and Commissioners Jon Howard and Ivey Hines voted against the funding. The other three abstained from voting until more information is provided.

The vote came after Marietta had offered a motion to fund the park at a 3 percent reduction in city contributions. That motion died for lack of a second.

"We don't even blink when discussing a $30 million Job Enhancement Fund (approved recently by the commission), but we have a problem discussing $1 million for Chehaw in a $109 million budget," Pike said. "What we don't consider is that businesses are not just looking at funding when they're considering locating in a community. There are quality-of-life issues as well.

"If the CEO of a business is looking at coming to Albany and he has three kids, ages 3, 5 and 9, things like a zoo, a civic center that brings Disney to town and an aquarium ... those are the kinds of things they look at, too. Another point I think we miss over and over is the money these attractions bring to our community. When we ask, 'What do we get for our million dollars?' we need to consider the tax revenue they bring into the city.

"I'd be willing to bet that, just with its big events, we get more than a million dollars a year from Chehaw."

Hubbard said she's concerned about "fairness" when allocating funding for attractions such as Chehaw.

"I love you guys, and I support wholeheartedly what you're doing," the mayor said. "But I look at the money that's disbursed, and when I go back through the minutes of past meetings I see where you said you would try and wean yourselves (from public money). I believe in supporting our quality-of-life attractions, but we have other quality-of-life entities out there.

"Is it fair to give this much money to one and nothing to others?"

Postell, who serves on the Park Authority, said it made no sense to expect Chehaw to become self-supporting.

"I've seen a 95 percent improvement out there in the 10 years I've been on that board," the Ward VI commissioner said. "There was a good bit of chaos at first, but things have improved tremendously. It's naive to think an operation like Chehaw will ever become self-sufficient. Therefore, we have to support it or abandon it.

"I believe it's a good investment."

Asked by Howard if park officials were moving toward self-sufficiency, Porter said few such public facilities could pull off such a feat.

"As long as we remain a public park, I don't believe we'll be able to operate as we are -- providing low enough prices that everyone in Albany can attend -- without subsidy," Porter said. "When you privatize a facility like this, you get into Disney territory, and you price yourself out of the capacity for a large number of people to attend."

Kemp said officials are planning substantial improvements at Chehaw, including creekside RV parking with "all the bells and whistles."

Marietta asked City Manager James Taylor how the funding of Chehaw fit into his five-year plan, and Taylor replied, "It doesn't." Asked to elaborate, the city manager said, "My five-year plan for the city was very simple: Tighten your belt and increase revenue. I don't go to conferences, my staff doesn't go to conferences; we're cutting back. But we seem to be the only ones tightening our belt.

"You will do what you're going to do (in funding Chehaw), but cuts are going to have to come from somewhere."