More make case for sales-tax funds

The growth of a downtown theater district, development of a regional cancer center and badly-needed library repairs all stand to benefit the community greatly, the heads of four entities seeking funds from Augusta’s next special purpose local option sales tax told Augusta Commission members Friday.

Only one, Georgia Regents Univer­sity, is almost guaranteed the funds if voters approve renewing the 1 percent tax May 20. The commission voted Tuesday to take out an
$8 million loan ahead of the tax’s collections to meet a state deadline for construction to start on a new GRU cancer research facility.

Once its research and clinical phases are underway, the cancer center stands to create at least 500 jobs and have an economic impact of at least $300 million, based on a study of similar facilities, said Samir Khleif, the director of the cancer center.

Because of its location in Augusta, the center will improve outcomes for black patients who generally are underrepresented in clinical trials and fare worse from cancer, he said.

“This is a major advantage for us here, because there are very few cancer centers in the country that serve a population that’s almost 50 percent African-American,” Khleif said.

The commissioners who attended Friday’s session – Bill Fennoy, Wayne Guilfoyle, Mary Davis and Grady Smith – needed no convincing of the project’s merits. They were more skeptical about funding the requests that followed in their entirety.

Among them, Symphony Orches­tra Augusta wants $12.9 million to complete renovations at the Miller Theatre, a 1940 movie theater on Broad Street, and transform the adjacent former Cullum’s building into a youth music institute.

SOA project Chairman Levi Hill said the plans include deepening the Miller stage to create space large enough for the symphony, ballet, opera and other performances.

The 1,300-seat theater would be “a performing center for all of Augusta,” Hill said. “Our vision is to have a dynamite performing venue in Augusta.”

The project received funds from the previous round of the sales tax and has raised the required 25 percent match, but it needs the additional funds from the new tax to complete the project, SOA Executive Director Mieko Di Sano said.

Di Sano said she lives downtown and that restoring the Miller was what drew her to Augusta, “to be part of this rise.”

Across Broad Street in the next block, Augusta’s 96-year-old Imperial Theatre needs $6 million in tax funds, said Executive Director Charles Scavullo.

Since 1992, with help from prior sales-tax allocations, the 850-seat Imperial has served as a venue for dramatic, dance and musical performances, but it needs the additional funds to upgrade electrical, heating and air conditioning systems; improve restrooms; add an elevator to the basement and second floor; and make other improvements necessary because of the building’s age, Scavullo said.

Another group seeking tax funds for a fine arts center, Paine College, did not attend the session despite being scheduled. Fennoy, a Paine alumnus, said he did not think the college had given up on its wish for
$8 million for the facility.

A final request Friday came from the East Central Geor­gia Regional Library system’s exeuctive director, Dar­lene Price.

Despite the downtown headquarters library and Dia­mond Lakes library being in fine shape, “we have four other libraries that don’t look as good,” Price said. “In fact, they don’t look good at all.”

The system is seeking $5.745 million to make repairs at the aging Maxwell, Fried­man, Wallace and Apple­by branches, Price said.

Davis, Guilfoyle and Fen­noy said the groups were unlikely to receive all they sought from the new tax package.

“We just don’t have the resources,” Fennoy said. “We’re talking about less than 25 percent is what we’re going to actually approve that will be funded.”

After about $741 million in requests made by city departments, elected officials and outside agencies, the commission must cut the list to $185 million, Guilfoyle said.

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