Clayton wish list includes arena

Clayton County leaders will be asked next week to consider building a $35 million civic arena with money raised from a special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST.

The county is compiling a list of capital projects over the next decade that would be funded by a SPLOST extension beginning in 2015. Other items on the wish list: new digs for county leaders and a state-of-the-art digital network that would consolidate county services.

The proposed arena, which would host sports events, graduations and concerts and would rival the Gwinnett Arena, would help the county draw more business and boost its image. At least that is the thinking of a SPLOST committee of residents tasked with suggesting projects the tax would fund.

A state-of-the art arena also would address quality-of-life issues that hamper Clayton, said Jonesboro resident DeMont Davis, an information technology consultant for schools who heads the county’s 2015 SPLOST Citizens Committee. Can the county support such a facility? Davis defers to county leaders for the answer.

“We’re looking at this (list) as the direction our citizens want to (use to) see our county move forward,” Davis said.

The group will make its recommendations to commissioners Tuesday night. Commission chairman Jeff Turner agrees with Davis’ assessment.

“We need to start thinking bigger and wanting more for Clayton. We need to bring back graduations to Clayton and (bring in) sporting events, plays and the type of events that Clayton residents go to Cobb and Gwinnett to enjoy,” Turner said Thursday. “I haven’t seen the actual list but if the civic center is on there, that’s a plus. It’s not a done deal for any project. The board has the final say.”

But critics say the county can’t afford such an expensive proposition when it hasn’t completed many of the projects from two previous SPLOST programs. Clayton’s chief operating officer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday that the county is taking a different tack to avoid problems that plagued past SPLOST programs.

“We’ve taken a strategic approach toward SPLOST,” COO Arrelle Anderson said.”We’ve looked at the county holistically and identified categories that would help benefit the county.” The 2015 SPLOST will focus on technology, facilities, fleets and transportation, she said. County officials have not decided how long taxes will be collected.

Strategy aside, county officials have yet to give a full accounting of projects created in the 2004 and 2009 SPLOST programs, said Robbie Moore, a Jonesboro resident and former county commissioner who served in the mid-1990s.

“Before I’d ask people to spend more money on more projects, I would show them what we’ve done with their previous money,” Moore said. “And I would only be willing to ask them to spend money on projects that would bring jobs to our community. Not pie-in-the sky dreams.”

Hampton resident Dr. Henry Anderson said he’d welcome an arena.

“An arena would be great for the southside because we need a venue for graduations and other upscale functions like they have on the northside,” he said. But he also expressed concern about projects in the 2004 and 2009 SPLOST that haven’t been completed, some of which have languished for nearly a decade. “Those projects should be completed as promised.”

Moore noted that Gwinnett had the commitment of a hockey team and indoor football team before it built its arena. Moore said the money raised through the next SPLOST would be better spent on an industrial park that would create jobs in Clayton. “I’d rather take a chance on providing jobs, not entertainment.”

Under the previous SPLOSTs, residents were promised a juvenile justice facility, police precincts, recreation and senior centers and more and better roads. The county will have collected more than half a billion dollars from the 2004 and 2009 programs by the time the collection period on the 2009 SPLOST runs out next December.

Jeff Metarko, Clayton director of transportation and development, said most of the 2004 SPLOST projects, which centered on transportation and parks and recreation facilities, are done. The 2009 program involved $60 million in road work, which is projected to stretch well into the future.

“Very seldom do you find something that can be built overnight,” Metarko said. “Capital projects are extensive amounts of work and the majority have a large price tag.”

To date, four of the six recreation centers have been built. Two senior citizens centers also are among the projects that remain incomplete. Millions of dollars collected for the projects sit in the bank. County officials have said there isn’t enough money to staff and maintain more rec centers now since money for upkeep would have to come from the general fund, which has taken a hit in recent years because of the economy.

“When I look at the 2009 and 2004 programs, some of the (building and cost) estimates did not consider the sustainability part of the project,” said Anderson who has been COO about six months. “It may be a reason why some were postponed.”

Turner, who took office this year, conceded Thursday “the people voted on these (2004 and 2009) projects and there should be some movement on those projects, if feasible.” But he said his administration will move cautiously to make sure there’s no additional cost to taxpayers.

Commissioners will approve a final list on Feb. 4 to put before voters in May. Tuesday’s meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the administration complex, 112 Smith St. in Jonesboro.