By Dave Ongie
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, the Sesquicentennial fundraising committee huddled with the members of the Johnson City Commission and city staff last Wednesday afternoon for a work session.
By the end of the two-hour meeting, both sides left feeling optimistic about the state of the proposed legacy project, which will consist of an adventure playground and a historical plaza located on the land between King Commons and the Johnson City Public Library. Those in attendance were given an overview of the plans by Jennifer Salyer of Barge Design Solutions for the construction of a playground and plaza, which included a detailed breakdown of what the project will cost. With 10-percent contingencies for construction and design included, the project has a projected price tag of just over $2 million – $1.15 million for the playground, $450,000 for the plaza, $188,000 for public restrooms.
Donna Noland, a member of the fundraising group, laid out the timeline of how the Sesquicentennial committee settled on the legacy project and the components that will be included. She also announced that $585,000 worth of pledges had already been secured in roughly eight weeks worth of fundraising.
“Our fundraising efforts, in combination with the $1 million the city has proposed, we’re at $1.585 million in eight weeks,” Noland said.
All told, the committee is expected to raise around $1 million in donations to match the $1 million committed by the city in this year’s budget. Noland noted that it took a group in Kingsport nearly a year to raise $1 million for a similar project, but the Sesquicentennial committee does not have that luxury.
Since the project is being completed in conjunction with the city’s 150th anniversary, the clock is ticking. In order for the playground and plaza to be completed by September or October of this year, and therefore ahead of the city’s 150th birthday on Dec. 1, 2019, work will need to begin in March.
While the goal is to have funds secured by March, committee member Don Raines said that was a tall task.
“If we’re having to say we’re going to have to have this done by March 1, I think that’s pushing it, honestly,” Raines said. “I’m going to be really up front with you about this.”
Johnson City vice-mayor Joe Wise acknowledged the challenges the Sesquicentennial fundraisers are facing. Once work begins on the project, Wise believes it will be harder to solicit donations.
“Part of my thought is what do we need to do to keep the fundraising period viable as long as possible,” Wise asked. “Because we’re going to need shovels in the ground in three and a half months, and with every turn of the shovel, there’s a little less of something yet to happen that (people) get to spur on through philanthropy.”
Still, Wise was impressed with the committee’s early progress, especially given the fact that the fundraising efforts were in a silent phase up until last Wednesday’s meeting. “To be halfway there is about where you need to be,” Wise noted.
Now that efforts to raise funds and in-kind donations are going public, Raines believes excitement will build in the community and giving will accelerate.
“I think as we get more public with this, I think they’ll be more excited,” Raines said. “This is going to be a truly fantastic project for our city.”
Dr. Larry Calhoun, who served on the Sesquicentennial committee before being appointed as a city commissioner in October, said he wanted to send the fundraising committee into the community with the confidence that the plans for the legacy project have the blessing of the commission.
“We need to make sure that we, as a commission, are supporting them and saying go out and sell this, we’re behind you on the concept.” Calhoun said. “Depending on how much money is raised, depending on how much value engineering we can come up with, in March and April we can solidify this thing. I think we’re in a good place.”
Indeed, the commission and city staff members present on Wednesday viewed the $2.1 million price tag as a worst possible scenario. Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola reminded the commission that using city crews to complete some of the work is an option if fundraising efforts come up a bit short of the target heading into a crucial April 4 commission meeting when bids for the project are expected to be approved.
“I would think by March 28 you will have a pretty good feel for exactly what it is,” Pindzola said. “I think you’re pretty close to being able to reasonably be able to make a decision on April 4. At that commission meeting, you’ll know exactly what they’ve been able to do. You’ll have the flexibility to adjust the plans if you need to adjust them, adjust the bids if you need to adjust them.
“At ($585,000), that’s outstanding. I think you’re going to be in the target range to do this project.”
Initial plans for the legacy project included a splash pad and a water feature consisting of a fountain that could be synchronized to music. Noland said the construction of a splash pad a Carver Recreation Center diminished the need for a splash pad downtown, but there is still a space for the fountain to be added in the future.
“That would be great if somewhere, someplace, sometime we were able to complete this,” Calhoun said of the fountain. “The way this is laid out, that allows this to happen somewhere down the road.”