Court may spend $6 million on new recreation center
The Letcher Fiscal Court voted last week to spend up to $6 million to turn the old A&P grocery building in Whitesburg into a new recreation center that will be operated by the county government.
The court’s action, taken during a special meeting on June 26, authorizes Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward to enter into a financing agreement for the project with the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO) for up to $6 million. Ward said the next step will be to hire a structural engineer to determine if the existing building is suitable for a recreation center. District Two Magistrate Archie Banks said the building may have to be torn down if it isn’t found to be up to par.
The court called the special meeting to give the county’s youth and others interested the chance to provide input on what should be included in the new center. Despite widespread advertising in newspapers and on radio stations, no young people attended the meeting.
Ward said the fiscal court has received suggestions ranging from the need for a climbing wall to wishes for a movie theater, and most of the suggestions will be considered during the design phase of the project. Ward appeared to rule out the possibility of a movie theater, citing the high cost of showing first-run films.
Ward said a theater in Inez that is owned by Martin County loses money each year because of the high cost of the films. Magistrate Banks added that first-run films are usually contracted for long periods, which often leads to empty seats toward the end of the run.
Among other suggestions brought up at the meeting were a walking track, indoor swimming pool, a stage and gathering area for an "open mic" entertainment salon, multi-purpose rooms, and putt-putt golf. Ward said the recreation center will have to be different from those in Knott and Perry counties in order to attract visitors.
Banks said the center should be designed with enough flexibility to serve many purposes, including some which are unanticipated. He suggested making certain that multi-purpose rooms could be enlarged or made smaller by the use of sliding partitions and doors so that the center could serve several purposes at one time.
District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson said that while the county’s youth should be served, a swimming pool would also benefit older people.
Lee Michael Caudill, chairman of the Letcher County Tourism Commission, said that while tourism is thought of as attracting visitors from outside the region, it can also mean bringing in visitors from other parts of the county. Caudill said the recreation center could be a facility that helps draw visitors from other areas of Letcher County to Whitesburg.
Whitesburg Mayor James W. Craft said the City of Whitesburg will do all it can to help the fiscal court get the center up and running. Craft said the project would furnish Letcher County’s young people with a badly needed gathering place and provide them with positive activities.
"All you have to do is call us," Craft said. "We’ll be there for you."
Letcher County Parks and Recreation Director Derek Barto suggested that Ward form a planning committee including Ward, Barto, other court members, county youth representatives, and other interested parties. Magistrate Gibson agreed and added that while the center is necessary, the court needs to be practical and move with caution.
"Let’s do it right," said Gibson. "But let’s be sensible."
In other business, the court also voted unanimously to approve the Letcher County Health Department’s $6,287,300 budget and voted to approve the lease/ purchase of a backhoe and mower at state contract price.
The court also opened bids for a communications system which includes all county communications and 911 calls to first responder units. The court received three bids for the communications services. Mega Communications, the current contract holder which is owned by former magistrate Randall Caudill, submitted the low bid of $40 an hour for labor with around-the-clock coverage.
J&J Communications of Whitesburg submitted the second lowest bid at $45 an hour, but agreed to lower its price to $40 an hour and also provide around-the-clock support when both Caudill and Judge Ward suggested that it would serve the county better if it had two contractors to back each other up and make sure there is more than one communications company in the county familiar with the equipment. Cornett Electronics of Cumberland entered a bid for $50 an hour, which was rejected.
Caudill told the court he expects to retire eventually and said it would be a good idea for J&J to be part of the arrangement. He also said in the event of a violent storm or major disaster, there may be more than one site in the county needing attention. The two companies agreed that in ordinary circumstances Mega Communications will handle transmitters and repeaters and J&J will work on hand-held radios, pagers and other equipment.
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming and District One Magistrate Bobby Lewis did not attend the meeting. Ward said Lewis was in Louisville, and Fleming was busy surveying damage from severe thunderstorms in his district earlier that evening. Ward said McRoberts had been particularly hard hit and Fleming was there to direct efforts to clean up the damage and help those in need of assistance.