The museum is now housed in a city-owned building that does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to museum executive director Chris McKeever.
The city council voted 4-1 to turn down the county’s offer, with council member Eddie Stinnett casting the lone vote to accept a lease.
Council members expressed their desire to acquire the 106-year-old building, saying it could have been a showpiece for the city and would have anchored the LaFayette Road revitalization project.
City officials got held up on having to be ultimately responsible for the building’s maintenance and operational costs.
“I wish there were other ways to get this building,” council member Louis Hamm said. “This is a no-win situation.”
Hamm serves on the Downtown Development Authority and the Refresh Committee. He said he was torn between acquiring the historic building for the museum, and justifying the expense. Hamm and mayor Lynn Long said the city is already struggling to find funds to build a maintenance garage for city vehicles.
Fort Oglethorpe city manager Ron Goulart advised the council they could accept or reject the county’s offer, or make a counter-proposal. Following the city’s thumbs-down vote, council member Earl Gray reiterated the counter-offer idea.
DDA chairman Jeff Epperson spoke before the council, suggesting the authority could act as a liaison between the city and the museum. The DDA could oversee the museum’s lease, and acquire a loan or apply for grants to fund repair and maintenance costs, Epperson said. He told reporters he intends to make his case before county officials when the commission meets on April 17.
Last year the county set aside $350,000 in historical preservation SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds to buy the building. SPLOST is a one-penny sales tax used for capital and infrastructure improvements.
County attorney Chad Young told the council that by state law the county would have to retain ownership of the old post gym if it purchased the building with SPLOST funds. Young warned the county’s offer to buy and then lease the old post gym to the city would not last long. The county is in the midst of an expensive courthouse renovation, he said. The county could always redirect the $350,000 to the courthouse project should the city turn down the proposal, Young said.
Also at issue was a county repair estimate of $248,000. McKeever told officials the museum board planned to launch a $100,000 capital campaign to raise money for these repairs. She said the old post gym could serve as an event venue, thereby generating revenue for the museum’s operating expenses.
McKeever introduced Bill Brown as the museum’s capital campaign consultant. Brown said he was confident the museum’s longtime, committed donors would pledge the sizable donations required to make any necessary repairs.
Local businesswoman Judy O’Neal said she did not believe in the accuracy of the county’s repair estimate. O’Neal owns the building and had offered to sell it to the county for $350,000 for the sole purpose of housing the museum. The old post gym houses Tootie’s Treasures consignment shop.
O’Neal told the council in March she wanted a definitive answer on the county’s proposal by April 15. She said since the city turned down the county’s offer she would keep her building.
“They made their choice,” O’Neal told reporters after the council meeting. “I’ve got somebody that’s offered me a lot more money for it. I’m going to stay there. They had an opportunity to do something.”
As she walked away from city hall O’Neal turned to county commissioner Bobby Winters, the only commissioner to attend the council meeting, and said, “You can spend your money the way you want to.”