Activity Center still top priority

Seniors exercise at the Oxford Activity Center. A new facility is needed, the big question to answer is how to fund it. Photo by Petre Thomas

With one desperately needed road almost completed and two more in their engineering phases, Oxford officials confirmed Monday that their next highest priority would be a new or expanded indoor recreational facility. <>

The current Activity Center, built around 1970, is functionally obsolete and overcrowded, according to both Mayor Pat Patterson and Oxford Park Commission employees who oversee programs at the facility.

“This board believes the Activity Center is a top priority for the city,” Patterson said. “We’re struggling with how to finance it. We’re looking at something in the $7 million range.”

Oxford Park Commission Executive Director Rob Boyd said a work session with Alderman Robyn Tannehill, Alderman Janice Antonow, Patterson and OPC board members had yielded a plan for a facility that would rehab the existing building on the corner of Price Street and Molly Barr Road, and add new construction that would more than double its size.

“This is not what we would be building new,” Boyd said.

Such construction would leave the city facility far from the more expensive proposal to fill the entire campus between a relocated Price Street and the current Stone Center with recreational and cultural facilities. Boyd said the expansion and renovation, while far from ideal, would relieve a desperate need for space to better separate such incompatible activities as low-impact exercise for seniors and basketball for teens and young adults.

The current Oxford Activity Center also serves as a venue for dance classes, craft classes, a wide variety of exercise classes and athletic games, reunions and other parties, as well as being a central location for counting votes in municipal elections.

Alderman Ulysses Howell emphasized that despite the challenges of financing more ambitious construction, just meeting current needs might not be the best approach for Oxonians.

“Would it meet our kids’ needs 20 years from now?” he asked.

Park Commission member Mike McGee agreed.

“What goes on 20 years from now is just as important as what goes on today,” he said.

Patterson took a hard stand against a couple of questions about easing restrictions on the use of the city’s Hospital Trust Fund.

Started with $30 million from the sale of the existing hospital, it now has some $34 million – and strict rules on the use of its gains.

“When the Baptist Hospital was down there, it was hard asset. If you invade the capital, it’ll be gone,” he said. “The perfect example is the Mississippi cigarette trust fund.

“What you’re talking about doing is spending up your trust fund,” Patterson added.

Tannehill said the problem could be solved by limiting any use to amounts above the $30 million opening balance, but Patterson was unconvinced.

“Then you’d cap it at $25 million, then at $20 million, then at $10 million,” he said. “Then it’s gone.”

Other needs, possibilities

Even if OPC’s space woes were resolved today, city officials would still face several other departmental needs for new quarters.

Several proposals have been made for the former Fire Station No. 1 on North Lamar at Price Street, from storage for various departments to a northern gateway headquarters for Visit Oxford, whose lease for its current offices at 415 S. Lamar ends next spring.

Visit Oxford Director Mary Allyn Hedges said the extra space would be welcome, but the Mid-Town area is too far from the Square to be useful. Alderman Jay Hughes reminded his colleagues that the city had already committed to dedicate the old fire station site as a greenspace.

Hughes suggested putting Visit Oxford in the Freeland Law Firm building, which he said is to be sold, with the buyer looking for a “long-term, attractive” occupant.

A renovation of the former RSVP offices next to City Hall might also provide Visit Oxford a plausible home, with visibility, a Square location, a city-owned facility and easily convertible to a multipurpose welcome center if a parking garage is built behind City Hall.

“If RSVP works, that’s where you’re going to be,” Patterson told Hedges, who agreed.

“We need a permanent location. We can’t keep floating around,” Hedges said. With several moves – from City Hall to the Oxford Conference Center to the diminutive house on South Lamar, she said, people lose track of where the visitors’ center is. “Even the locals on the Square don’t know where we are,” she said.

Twitter: @oxfordcitizenec

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