DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson has been leading a series of tours this month touting the benefits of adding walking trails, a small splash park and other green space amenities that are part of a proposed expansion of the South DeKalb YMCA at 2565 Snapfinger Road in Decatur.
The project is one that has divided the DeKalb Board of Commissioners, with Kathie Ganon, Elaine Boyer and Jeff Rader opposing the project, saying they do not want to use taxpayer dollars to pay for a private entity’s expansion. They have said the county should invest more money into renovating existing recreation centers. The Board of Commissioners is expected to discuss the Y proposal at its Aug. 12 meeting.
Under the proposed private-public partnership, the county would buy the South DeKalb YMCA for $4.9 million, and then lease the property back to the Y for $1 a year over the next 50 years. The money from the sale would go to renovate the Y and expand programming.
Commissioner Johnson, who represents District 3 where the Y is located, says the purchase is a great deal overall because the property was initially appraised at $6.8 million. He said the proposed deal is similar to other private-public partnerships that the county has with other entities to enhance residents’ quality of life.
“Just like the DeKalb History Center and the Callanwolde Arts Center, this is a private-public partnership that will benefit the community,” said Johnson. “It also has the potential to help fight health disparities in South DeKalb. The project’s plan calls for trails to be built throughout five acres of wooded land surrounding the Y, benches to enjoy nature, more soccer fields, but also comes the ability to host classes and other programs, especially for seniors and teens, to educate them on living healthy and having a positive influence on the generations after them.”
Curtis Winston, executive director of the South DeKalb YMCA, has been helping Johnson lead the tours. He agrees there are a number of positive benefits for the partnership.
“Some residents may feel that we are just in this to get money for the center but that is simply not true. This project will open up the green space facility for all. Not only will members benefit, but families who are not Y members will benefit as well, said Winston.
“Just like any other county park, families will be able to use the trails and other features that have nothing to do with memberships. Furthermore, if people would like to join this Y or any other Y, we offer scholarships or reduced fees for families that seek financial assistance. Hundreds, if not thousands of families, have already taken advantage of the Y’s financial assistance program.”
The proposed expansion would include additional space dedicated to seniors and youths. The 46,000-square-foot Y, which sits on 18 acres, would grow to just over 50,000 square feet, officials say.
Some residents such as Amber Sanchez, share the views of DeKalb commissioners Ganon, Boyer and Rader, saying taxpayer money could be better spent.
“There will always be a need for facilities like this in the county, but with other YMCAs in a very close vicinity, I think about 10 miles away or less, I think it will be a tough sell,” said Sanchez, who lives in Decatur. “You may not have one place in the county with all the proposed features they want to bring to the South DeKalb Y, but those features are in DeKalb at other centers.”
Proponents like Gil Turman, president of the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition, says he believes the project will be beneficial.
“A deal like this doesn’t come around everyday and I don’t think we should let it pass us up. This project would improve the South DeKalb community and bring residents closer together as they come to use the green space facilities,” said Turman. “We can always go back and improve the other centers in DeKalb later and we should do that later. But for now, I’m in support of this purchase because I think it’s just too good to let it go by us.”
Commissioners Watson and Johnson say they will share in the costs of buying the Y, utilizing green space acquisition funds from their districts. Watson would put up $651,842 and $307,250 would come from Johnson’s funds. The remaining $4 million will come from the countywide acquisition money from the 2001 and 2006 parks bond funds approved by voters.
At a June DeKalb County Commissioners meeting, Commissioners Gannon and Boyer voted against the proposal, while Rader abstained from voting so that interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, who supports the project, would not get to break the tie for the board.
Johnson says the arguments that opponents have with regard to spending money to upgrade and renovate existing county recreation facilities is like comparing apples and oranges.
“We aren’t taking from Tobie Grant or any other center to do this project,” said Johnson. “Land acquisition funds can’t be used for renovations. They are putting together two banks of money that are used for two completely different things.”
“Right now, it’s about education. I’ve invited the other commissioners to come out and see the land. See the need up close and the large amount of land that is just sitting here and tell us you still don’t see the need,” said Johnson.
The next green space tours will be hosted by Johnson and Winston on Saturdays, Aug. 9 and 16. Tours will run concurrently from 8:30 – 10 a.m. For more information, call 770-987-3500.