Fairgrounds project advances slowly

Published 7:14 pm Saturday, January 2, 2016

A portion of the Fairgrounds project is seen with the proposed site for Carver Circle to the right and the Health and Human Services building to the left.

A portion of the Fairgrounds project is seen with the proposed site for Carver Circle to the right and the Health and Human Services building to the left.

The Fairgrounds project has moved forward in fits and starts and many different iterations since it was first proposed, and current City Council members representing the area hope to get it moving again with a renewed vigor.

The project was pitched as a revitalization effort of a depressed area of downtown. Its main features came to include the Health and Human Services Building and the downtown police precinct, the major parts of more than $30 million the city has invested in the project. It also includes a residential neighborhood with 34 total units, which have been rising one by one east of Hall Place for the last few years.

“I think we’re in the process of looking at what we need to continue with the Fairgrounds,” Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said. “There are some other things that have come up.”

Email newsletter signup

The plan initially envisioned a much larger residential neighborhood. But when engineers found underground debris in one area, it was determined the neighborhood couldn’t be sited there.

Around the same time, the city needed a spot for a new Health and Human Services building. It would become the centerpiece of the redone Fairgrounds plan, with its parking lot sitting atop the buried debris.

The relocation of the Planters Peanuts factory allowed the plan to take shape. It was moved from a position closer to East Washington Street farther back along Culloden Street.

The city beautified the area by putting power lines underground and making sidewalk and streetscape improvements, including historic-looking lights.

“If we put some public investment in the area, then we’ll get the private investment,” Acting Deputy City Manager Scott Mills said recently, explaining the idea behind the concept.

The investments have indeed come, from Monument Construction and various other businesses, Mills said.

One thing that has not materialized is Carver Circle, originally planned as an elaborate, half-million-dollar network of stonework and statues in a spot on East Washington Street, near the Health and Human Services Building. It would have recognized George Washington Carver and his contributions to the peanut industry.

But city officials decided in 2014 the plan was too elaborate.

“I don’t know that it appropriately took into account its location,” City Manager Patrick Roberts said recently.

They proposed a scaled-back version would cost about $75,000, Roberts said in January 2014. Construction was supposed to have started last spring.

But the city ran into trouble again with overhead power lines.

“It’s just very problematic to move,” Roberts said of the utilities. “A hundred-thousand-dollar scope turned into something else.”

Roberts said he still expects the project to get done and supports honoring Carver.

“I think there’s a whole lot of merit behind it,” he said. “We’re just being very cautious before we spend six figures.”

Other changes are in the works, too. The Metropolitan Federal Credit Union plans a new location with a drive-through on Tynes Street, bringing a new commercial aspect to the project.

And Roberts said the city continues to look at revitalization efforts in the 300 block of East Washington Street, as well as the empty lots behind the row of buildings.

The city has been approached about an apartment building there, but “that would fall short” of the city’s vision, Roberts said.

The city owns one of the buildings in that block, the former Phoenix Bank building. A variety of proposals for the building, including a museum of black history and city offices, have yet to materialize, and the building will need significant renovation before it can be anything at all.

“It’s not at all a good location for city offices,” Roberts said. But, he added, “We think we have a really good piece of property.” He hopes to find an adaptive re-use with private dollars, he said.

Councilman Curtis Milteer said he hopes to see the city make a monetary push to move the project toward completion.

“It needs an additional push by putting up a funding package,” he said. “Until we put the budget behind it, it’s not going to move.”