The council’s heated debate June 12 was on whether or not to use eminent domain to acquire properties for the purpose of completing the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center.
The effort is being made to specifically shut down a liquor store at 321 Allgood Road, called Hunter’s Package store, on the corner of North Marietta Parkway.
Johnny Sinclair, the chairman of the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Committee, said he envisions the new Elizabeth Porter center as “a great place for children and young people … but I can’t have a liquor store smack down in the middle of it.”
The other five properties include a vacant lot, a neighborhood grocery store and three small homes.
City Attorney Doug Haynie told the council that the process to survey the properties and make an offer of “fair market value” takes six months.
The council unanimously voted to start the negotiation process, using money for the appraisals from the 2009 parks bond.
Haynie said the appraisals were contracted out and he expects the results back before Aug. 1.
Condemnation in Marietta
The last time the city used its condemnation powers to close an existing business was 10 years ago, Haynie said.
He said the property was a nightclub on Powder Springs Street that was demolished.
Condemnation — also called eminent domain — is when a local government files documents in court to force an owner to sell his property to the government. If the sale is voluntary, it does not require condemnation.
The conflict, as it was discussed during the city council meeting, centers on the government taking land, tearing down homes and closing businesses for a recreation center. A center that voters were promised would be developed into a new large facility at the existing Elizabeth Porter site.
Mayor Steve Tumlin said during the June 12 meeting that he questions whether the City Council has the stomach to condemn a business.
Tumlin threatened to veto the motion if the process was only initiated as a threat, with no intent by the council to approve a condemnation if needed.
Just stating the city is interested in the properties could jeopardize these businesses continuing to operate or homeowners selling to other buyers, Tumlin said.
Councilman Johnny Sinclair said he met with the liquor store owner, Fannie Mae Hunter, and that she is open to discussing a fair deal.
Her store was closed this week, with a sign on the door that stated, “closed for renovations.”
Haynie said a “good faith effort” must be made to spend all of the budgeted $3.75 million from the 2009 parks bond at the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center site.
A one-page, itemized list that gave a specific dollar amount for each project was published before a city-wide vote. That document binds how much money must be spent at each location, Haynie said.
Coleman said reneging on the obligation to voters to produce a class A recreation center in that neighborhood “would be a time bomb.”
The council can expand the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center, but cannot build a new facility blocks away and give it the Elizabeth Porter name, Haynie said.
He said if all efforts are made, but there is remaining money not spent on the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center, the council can use the excess funds on another voter-approved bond project or pay down the bond debt.
Haynie said there is no deadline on when the money must be spent, “as long as the city is actively working” on 2009 parks bond projects.
At the June 12 meeting, Sinclair told the council that although he is not comfortable with spending $3.75 million on a center with the liquor store next door, it is not an option to pull out of the project.
Sinclair said the voters approved building an updated facility at that specific location.
“The largest ticket item on that (2009 parks bond) list is $3.75 million for Elizabeth Porter, and by God we are going to build it,” Sinclair said.
The Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center, at 370 Montgomery St., directly north of the 120 Loop and west of Fairground Street, sits in a quiet neighborhood.
But, the community has raised their voices year after year, saying their local center has been the last of the parks projects to be revamped.
The four-year-long parks bond initiative is on budget, with only a fifth of the original $25 million bond left.
Laurel Park, on the westside of Marietta off Whitlock Avenue, was completed at the end of May, and Merritt Park, on the northeast side of the city near Interstate 75, is about to break ground after the council approved additional funding.
The Montgomery Street neighborhood is represented by Councilman Anthony Coleman, who was the only member to vote against the city buying Turner Chapel’s Family Life Center for $1.2 million.
The Turner church property, located next to Custer Park between Fairground Street and North Cobb Parkway, has a large gymnasium and meeting spaces.
Sinclair, who works as a real estate agent, said the Turner Chapel purchase was a “phenomenal price” and has changed what needs to be offered at the renovated Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center.
Sinclair said he sees a bigger portion being dedicated to green space for large family cookouts and picnics on Sunday afternoons after church.
Sinclair also said he wants a water feature, like a splash pad or a city pool, which Marietta lacks.
“I would love to talk pool,” Sinclair said.
The Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center sits on 2.7 acres of land, and the city has purchased 1.7 acres of adjacent properties to construct a larger building, according to Parks and Recreation Director Rich Buss.
If the six properties discussed at the City Council meeting are acquired, it would add a total of 2.25 acres, Buss said.
Sinclair said the expanding property would place the new facility on a giant corner lot with an entrance off North Marietta Parkway, instead of the existing small building that is tucked on a side street.
Coleman said the North Marietta Parkway is a gateway into downtown Marietta.
He said a first-class recreation center will spur economic development in the area and attract better businesses.
“This investment on the North Loop will attract more redevelopment,” Coleman said.
Coleman said he specifically hopes to change the conditions on Allgood Road, Birney Street and Morningside Drive that are to the east of the property.
Just a few block west of the center, the Montgomery Park housing development is starting construction on land that will offer 45 single-family homes.
“There is a lot of great stuff going on in this neighborhood, and (Elizabeth Porter) will be part of it. … I want to accelerate that,” Sinclair said.
The Elizabeth Porter Center is a white-brick building with a dirty, country-blue door.
A large sign states that the center is open. The posted summer hours are noon to 9 p.m.
The building first opened in 1948 as a hospital for African-Americans, until it became the Montgomery Street Recreation Center.
Elizabeth Porter was the first African-American director of the center and is now the center’s namesake.
Residents that live across from the center discussed the neighborhood before the 120 Loop was built, when it was just a two-lane road.
Meta Edwards, 50, said she spent her much of her childhood at the center.
She said back then the local kids called it “The Canteen.”
The community’s strong connection to the location over many decades has made the site an historical landmark, Edwards said.
But, Edwards said she welcomes a new facility at the corner, and hopes it will come with jobs and volunteer opportunities for members of the community.
Edwards said the new Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center should offer gymnastic equipment, arts and crafts programs, and maybe even foreign language classes.
Caroline Grogan said she is the great-niece of Elizabeth Porter.
Grogan never met the community leader, but her husband, William, worked at the Elizabeth Porter Recreation Center in the early 1980s monitoring the kids and setting up activities.
The Grogan’s home is one of many that has a chain-link fence with a no trespassing sign, which William said is left over from a period when there was a high rate of crime in the area.
“(A new center) would mean a lot around here,” Caroline said.
Caroline said she welcomes anything that can help the local youth set goals and doing something productive.
“Anything you introduce that is new and positive can change a community’s mentality,” Caroline said.