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CARLTON FLETCHER: Attractions’ futures hinge on City Commission’s funding vote

OPINION: Public, commission divided over RiverQuarium, Civil Rights Institute funding

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Please, this is just too good to be gone.

— Pearl Jam

As Tommy Gregors talked Tuesday about the benefits of downtown attractions like the Flint RiverQuarium, he pointed out that a busload of students from Tift County and another from Crisp County had just arrived at the downtown attraction.

“We have four or five more groups from summer programs coming in later today,” Gregors said.

At tonight’s Albany City Commission meeting, the board will decide whether to allocate $200,000 from its Fiscal Year 2015 budget for the RiverQuarium and another $100,000 for the Albany Civil Rights Institute, which, ironically, did not ask for more money but had a 100 percent increase in funding thrust at it by Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell. (What’s that song about friends in high places … or is it low places?)

Very few issues stir the taxpaying public — and others who either don’t pay taxes or don’t even live here but like to gripe — like plans to allocate budgeted funds for so-called quality-of-life entities like the RiverQuarium and Civil Rights Institute. And while the public is generally split on the subject, it’s the very vocal ones (“Blow that fish tank back into the Flint River!”) who tend to get the most attention.

However, there are plenty of others who take a more common-sense approach to the topic. And, as Tri-State Home Sale Supply (also known as Tri-State Florist Wholesale) owner Jim Womack points out, they actually have “skin in the game.”

“We have an awful lot of problems with streets and infrastructure that I would hope would be more of a priority,” Womack, who has lived in Albany since 1995 and contributes to the RiverQuarium, said. “I also find it disturbing that it’s against the law for the city to actually give this money to these attractions, that they have to go through a sheltering process with ADICA to do so.

“I think the RiverQuarium and the Civil Rights Institute are very worthy institutions, and I have nothing negative to say about them. But I think our tax money should go to needed infrastructure improvements.”

Gregors, an Albany native who serves dual duty as head of both the RiverQuarium and the Thronateeska Heritage Center, said the public should be careful what it asks for when it demands that all quality-of-life funding be cut out.

“If you want no tax money to support these quality-of-life venues that serve as economic tools for the community, do we then want to shut down every public park in the city? Do we do away with everything that’s not public safety or utility-related? When people talk to me about this, I respectfully ask them what kind of places they like to go to, what kinds of things they like to do. When they tell me, I point out that those places and those activities are generally funded by tax dollars. When you peel the layers back, that’s what you find.

“If you go down to Riverfront Park now, there are dozens of kids playing in the ‘free’ fountain. But if the county (which owns and is responsible for upkeep of the park) decided to start charging what it costs to test the water three times a day, seven days a week and what it costs for the water each month, I doubt you’d see anyone at the fountain. That’s what we’re up against. Since Albany’s not a true tourist destination, we’re sustained by local dollars. That’s one of the challenges of funding a venue like this.”

The City Commission cast a nonbinding 4-3 vote at its work session last week to go against City Manager James Taylor’s recommendation and approve the RiverQuarium/Civil Rights Institute funding. But the vote was tenuous at best. The board’s vote tonight will be binding.

Commissioners Bob Langstaff and B.J. Fletcher — who with Commissioner Jon Howard voted against the funding — have spoken out against adding the $300,000 to the city’s budget, and Fletcher remains steadfast in her determination to have quality-of-life attractions like the RiverQuarium and the Civil Rights Institute wean themselves off public money.

“It is time we face the fact that all things are going to go up in cost if we don’t stop shelling money out to everyone that gets in front of us,” Fletcher said Tuesday. “Voters should be made aware of the hands that are raised for a yes vote when it comes to spending their money.”

Commissioner Bobby Coleman, who voted with Postell, Commissioner Roger Marietta and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard to approve the funding, said Tuesday the city has too much invested in the attractions to leave them to wither on the vine.

“Even if we decided it was time for attractions like the RiverQuarium and the Civil Rights Institute to make it on their own, we can’t just cut them off without any warning,” Coleman said. “We’re doing all this talking about revitalizing downtown, and how are we going to do that if we shut down these attractions that bring people downtown?

“I believe these venues must work to raise the money necessary for their operations, but they need a measure of support from us in order to do that. They need some assistance as they look to the future.”

Tonight’s vote will go a long way toward determining that future.