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The armory on Market Street

Council panel backs museum for armory

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

Kim Daniels refers to her efforts to lease the former National Guard Armory building as a race.

After a Tuesday vote by the City Council Finance Committee to push the issue ahead, she said the finish line is in sight.

"It's a 400-meter race and we've already run 300 meters," the council member said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm just praying this bill has the endurance it needs."

Daniels' legislation would lease the historic armory building to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Kirby-Smith Camp 1209, which seeks to restore the building and turn it into a military museum and space for other civic organizations. The lease would be $1 a year.

Passed by the council Transportation, Energy and Utilities Committee on Nov. 18, the bill was deferred by Finance the next day when an arts-based group emerged with a plan to turn the building into an arts and education hub.

Daniels met with council President Bill Gulliford on Nov. 26 to ask that the bill be voted on. He said that before the city entered into a 10-year lease for the building, it would be better to hear more details about the plans.

Tuesday was the next opportunity for the bill to be heard by the Finance Committee. There were questions and criticisms throughout the debate.

Gulliford said he had no problem with either entity vying for the building, but had come to the conclusion the process is flawed and that council was entering negotiations as a group. The process should instead be handled by a request for proposal.

He cited the failed attempt by the St. Johns River City Band to renovate the Snyder Memorial Church. The band received a $650,000 community development block grant from the city to purchase the building and rehabilitate it, but the building was taken by the city after loans weren't repaid.

"If we are going to lease the armory, let's do it right," he said, later adding: "All I am asking for is a little prudence."

Council member Richard Clark opposed leasing the building to either group because he didn't think either entity could handle the magnitude of such a rehabilitation job. He offered the example of the city allocating funds to rehabilitate and relocate Brewster Hospital, the first African-American hospital in Jacksonville.

That city took ownership of the building and spent more than $1 million for the move.

Council member Robin Lumb, though, said the Sons of Confederate Veterans had the most realistic understanding of the scope of the work.

The group has proposed to raise more than $2 million for its first rehabilitation phase, Daniels said, and has letters of support from several area businesses.

The arts group proposed raising $9 million, a figure based on estimates from when the Supervisor of Elections office was possibly going to relocate there. But, arts groups representatives have said they think that cost will be lower.

Council member Stephen Joost also said a request for proposal should be issued, which could help determine best use for the building. He said he was leaning toward the arts community proposal, but was keeping an open mind about the issue.

Asked during the meeting where Mayor Alvin Brown's office stood on the debate, the group was told the administration prefers an asset optimization study on vacant city-owned properties be completed. The armory is on that list, said Brown spokesman Dave DeCamp, and Jim Robinson, city Public Works director, told the committee the study could be complete by mid-2014.

A motion to defer Sons of Confederate Veterans bill failed 3-5, setting up a vote that passed 5-3.

Council member Johnny Gaffney said after the meeting he was disappointed in the outcome. He represents the district where the armory is located and said that his constituents made it known they favored the arts concept.

"To not afford a group an opportunity it seems to me just not fair," he said.

Weeks ago he said he was attempting to introduce legislation for the arts group by Dec. 10. But, with the council poised to vote on the Sons of Confederate Veterans legislation, he'll wait to see that outcome.

"I'm just going to let it play out," he said.

Daniels, though, said was relieved because of Tuesday's vote.

"It is a victory, but the race isn't over," she said Tuesday afternoon.

That possible finish line is Tuesday, the final council meeting of the calendar year.

dchapman@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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