Money Talks: Central City Hall Plans Thwarted

   

After 25 years, City officials and citizens agreed on a property for Central City Hall. When it was time to move forward, a million dollar carrot was dangled in front of their noses. Now, Central is back to square one. Back to studies, negotiations, and a city divided.

In 2018 the citizens of Central sent a clear message. The entire government was replaced. One of the main issues voters had was city hall. Some were upset over the $5,000,000 price tag, the location, or felt the design was too extravagant. The city hall property purchased by the previous administration was sold back to Central Community School System for $285,000. The reason was that the school board was unclear how much would be spent and what the building design would be.

In 2020 the current administration revisited discussions about city hall. Mayor David Barrow was approached by a member of Central Community School System letting them know the Central Community School System property was still an option. However, after reappraisal the property would cost $740,000. That is more than double the previous cost of the same property. Central officials decided to consider this property and others.

A Voice For The People

On September 08, 2020 Central City Council discussed property for city hall. Many of the comments from both the council and the citizens favored the property at 13421 Hooper Road which is owned by Newell Whitney. In most instances this property is referred to as “the Whitney property”. The Whitney property is next to the current city hall.

Councilman Dave Freneaux, who favored the Central Community School System property, said “where is actually a matter of opinion, that’s what it’s going to come down to tonight. There is no right or wrong.” Councilman Wade Evans had concerns that the football field, which just got a million dollars worth of upgrades in 2020, would hinder further development at the school board property. Councilman Aaron McKinney gave suggestions for the Whitney property, and stated that Central doesn’t lose by not building on the school board property. Councilwoman D’ann Wells did a survey of her district and 65% favored the Whitney property.

Council approved the property known as “the Whitney property”. The vote was 5 in favor, 2 abstained. Those abstaining did so due to conflict of interest. Councilman Dave Freneaux owns adjoining property. Councilman Josh Roy has personal relationships with the Whitney property owner. Central was finally ready to move forward.

Councilman Aaron McKinney “ Every one of my correspondences has been in favor of the Whitney property. I have had not one person speak to me about the school board property unless it was in reference to being more in favor of the Whitney property. I said I was here to be a voice for the people and to vote for what they wanted. Blending that in with my own personal feelings about the matter, I’ll be supporting the Whitney property.”

Click here to watch September 08, 2020 meeting. Click here to view minutes from the September 08, 2020 meeting.

A Million Dollars Changed Everything

A million dollars was allocated to the Central Community Sports Complex and everything changed. On October 14, 2020 the Senate Committee on Finance chose to give 1 million dollars in pork from the State General Fund to Central, via HB39. Additionally, it was passed during a pandemic, while private businesses were laying off Louisiana workers.

This money was to be spent only at the Central Community School System owned property which was considered for city hall, according to Senator Bodi White. Suddenly some of those who voted for the Whitney property based on representing their constituents had a change of heart. At the October 27, 2020 council meeting there was a resolution to designate Council Members Evans, Freneaux, and McKinney to negotiate a draft proposal of a purchase agreement with representatives of the Central Community School System for the site on the southeast corner of Sullivan and Hooper Roads for City Hall and to provide for related matters. The Whitney property purchase agreement was deferred.

Central Community Sports Complex

The amendment allocating the money says Central Community Sports Complex. However, at the November 24, 2020 meeting Senator Bodi White said the money must be used for the site of the Central Community School System’s high school football field located at 13845 Hooper Rd, Baton Rouge, LA 70818. The senator said his intentions were for a new parking lot at the school board property. He added that if Central did not want the money, he would give it to St. Helena. There is a Central Sports Park located at 10501 Lovett Rd, Baton Rouge, LA 70818, but this is a BREC park not the school board property.

Central Sports Park

Central Football Stadium 13845 Hooper Rd

During the November 24, 2020 meeting citizens were confused and frustrated about the sudden interest in the school board property. A few of the speakers mentioned a new third party forcing changed minds. It was as if upper management caught wind of the decision and stepped in. The Whitney property was already approved. A workshop was supposed to be planned for the design of the building.

There was upset after reading the drafted purchase agreement for the school board property. Councilmen stressed that the agreement was not for the public to see and was just a starting point. One even said that making that document public was sabotage. According to citizens, the agreement was written in favor of the school board and gave them rights to part of the building. Speakers asked why the school board was dictating city hall. Council approved a resolution to schedule a workshop to receive additional public input on the two proposed sites.

Minds Made Up

On January 07, 2021 there was a workshop. Although nothing was discussed with Mayor David Barrow or other council members, there were three renderings of city hall. There were three meetings, not made public, between three councilmen and some school board members. Chris Nakamoto with WBRZ gave more detail on these meetings. Plans were in place for details that went beyond mere consideration. Councilman Dave Freneaux was adamant that the building would face Hooper Road at a 45 degree angle. Councilman Aaron McKinney spoke of the school board planning to pay half of the cost of a meeting room using $500,000 as an example. It was as if the Whitney property was never an option.

At one point it was expressed that there may be issues with the plan for economic growth. There are restrictions such as not being able to have restaurants that serve alcohol that close to the football stadium. The only answer was that the newly turfed stadium would eventually be gone. Although there were those insisting the school board property was historical and that is what made it the best location, former Councilman Aaron Moak stated “Everything other than the intersection, in my opinion, historical of that site, is gone”.

In 2018 Councilman Dave Freneaux wrote articles about how that property could not legally be used for a city hall. Councilman Briton Meyer did much of the research for these writings. Yet at the January 07, 2020 workshop they spoke as if that is the only option. Freneaux even mentioned doing a million dollars worth of improvements to the Central Community School System property and they could give the city a million dollars worth of property. This would get the million dollars allocated to the “Central Community Sports Complex” to the Central Community School System.

Time For a Strategic Plan

The February 09, 2021 agenda introduced an item to appropriate funds for economic development to develop a strategic plan for a Downtown/City Center. This would allow a company to come in and do studies to form a plan for economic development and create a downtown atmosphere. This would also serve as an outsider looking at the area to decide which property would make the most sense for city hall. The Central Chamber Business Relations Committee recommended a strategic plan for economic development as well.

At the February 23, 2021 council meeting there will be a resolution to approve an agreement by and between Central Community School System and City of Central to exchange of property. Not only does this go against constituents, it ignores the previously introduced agenda item. This resolution is offered by Council Members Evans, Freneaux, Myer, McKinney, and Roy. The council may have the power to approve this agreement, but only the mayor can sign a contract.

One thing the majority speak of is a community center. People want a place for the community to gather. When people discuss what they hope to see there is always some idea of togetherness. Funds have been allocated for a city hall since 2008, however even in 2021 these dreams are crippled by the need for political games and backdoor deals.

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