- 2013 - December - 11th -

Doubts lead council to pull armory bill

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

After months of debate about a bill to lease the former National Guard Armory to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Kirby-Smith Camp 1209, the historic facility remains where it has been for years.

Empty and still in need of repairs.

City Council withdrew the legislation Tuesday, with several members citing a flawed process and a lack of a business or financial plan as reasons they could not support the idea.

"We are ignoring the process … ignoring the community," council member Warren Jones said.

Council member Bill Bishop said there is "shame" on councils and administrations past and present for letting the building fall in the disrepair it has, but that he had not seen the details he needed to support the bill.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to raise funds and renovate the building, using a portion of it for a military museum and allowing other civic groups to use the rest of the space.

In recent weeks, a group of arts-based nonprofits emerged with a plan to use the building for galleries, studio space and an arts and education destination called "The ARTery at the Armory."

It first pitched its idea to the Finance Committee in late November.

Kathryn McAvoy, director of The Performers Academy, said afterward that the withdrawal "was the best that could have happened." The academy is one of the nonprofits collaborating for the arts plan.

With the armory not having any immediate plans, McAvoy and Craig Erskine, Art League of Jacksonville director, said the arts group's goal now is to come up with a detailed business plan and have it in place in four to six months.

The group also recently had an independent analysis of the building and while it hoped a renovation price tag for their idea would be less than $9 million, it appears it could be close to that with asbestos, mold and plumbing issues. The $9 million has been used in past discussion of converting the facility into a Supervisor of Elections office.

As for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Calvin Hart says he isn't sure what the group's plans will be. Hart, the camp commander, said that after three years of working on the deal, he was disappointed.

The criticisms council members had against past organizations that failed should not be held against the Sons of Confederate Veterans, given that it is not seeking money, Hart said.

There was one small victory, he said. With the group's interest, it attracted people's attention to the neglected building, which is what they sought to restore.

Several council members said the building should have a request for proposals submitted to find out different groups that are interested and use that process to determine the best use.

But, that could be months away.

Mayor Alvin Brown's administration is conducting an asset optimization study for vacant city-owned properties that will be completed in 2014.

The administration prefers the study to be finished before making any determination.


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