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Graham businessman makes plea to leave Sesquicentennial Park as “green, public space”

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Local downtown businessman and former city councilman Griffin McClure approached the city council last week to advocate for preserving the Sesquicentennial Park on the northwest corner of Court Square just down the block from the Green & McClure Furniture store he manages.

McClure is also the current chairman of the board of directors of the Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, but he emphasized he was speaking as one downtown businessman.

Griffin McClure

The council has discussed several times recently the possibility of relocating the park to some other tract of land, possibly within another city park, and selling the corner lot in hopes of attracting a developer who would build back a building like the former 3-story Soda Shop that occupied the space for most of the last century.

He termed the current park “a green and public space” that should be kept.

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“To treat it as a ‘surplus property,’” as the council has discussed at various times, “is a disservice” to the sweat equity of the volunteers who raised donations to build the Sesquicentennial Park and the “months [that] went into planning it,” McClure told the council.

“If sold off, it is [an] irreversible [decision],” he warned.

“It’s an important location to keep as a public space,” he said, pointing to people who frequent the park during their lunch breaks, use it as the backdrop for special occasion photos, and take breaks during their walks.

“It is truly a treasure to our downtown,” McClure summarized. “I’m not comparing us to London,” he said, “but think of Hyde Park, Golden Gate Park: big cities have big parks that are as famous as their downtown cores. The right landscape architect could make it the jewel of downtown; I drive by that area as much as anybody in this room, and the comments so far aren’t really fair.”

McClure characterized the discussion thus far as “illogical,” that Graham would scrap a downtown park that most other cities would covet to have in their downtowns.  “That we would scrap that park, where many cities fight to gain that public space – and we just treat it as surplus – smells a little funny…I think this is  ahead of itself and over the skis a little bit.”

McClure challenged council members to talk to business people along North Main Street, who he said support keeping the park.

Two other downtown business people who spoke on other topics after McClure also favored keeping the park.

But both mayor Jennifer Talley and council member Bonnie Whitaker said they had talked to downtown business people who want to see a retail business in place of the park.

Talley said that, when the building was torn down decades ago after being destroyed by a fire, the rubble was pushed into the basement that existed under the three-story building.  They said voids that have developed there would represent a “huge expense” to repair.

Graham mayor Jennifer Talley

Talley also interjected several times during last week’s public comment period to say that the city has yet to receive any estimates of what it would cost to repair the sinking foundation (or park “floor”) that has been put forward as the basis for potentially razing and/or relocating Sesquicentennial Park.

“That basement is going to have to be excavated,” Bobby Chin said.  Adding to the complications, Chin said, adding that those repair costs aren’t covered by the city’s insurance.”Cost to remove the current structure of the park – to disassemble the and reassemble somewhere else,” he said, “would be a not insignificant cost.”

“You’ve got quotes on that?” asked McClure, still standing at the podium.

No, said Talley.  “That’s why we haven’t made a decision about it until we see what the price tag is.”

“So,” McClure pressed, “you haven’t seen any numbers?”

“No,” the mayor responded, “but it’s going to be a lot of money.”

“I think you’re also listing hurdles for private development, as well,” McClure responded, referencing an earlier claim by Talley that the current site of the park could potentially entice developers to build something that would generate future revenue for the city.

“Hurdles?” the mayor asked.  “What hurdles?”

“Sunken space, the basement, empty spaces below,” McClure said, referring to the council’s own description.  “All those will have to be addressed by someone, right?”

McClure also urged the council to consider using part of the downtown enhancement grant to cover part of the costs to repair the park.

Talley repeatedly insisted that she won’t go back on her word by saying she wanted it for one thing only to use it for another.

“I went to get that grant, and it wasn’t for the purpose of redoing the park,” the mayor explained.  “It was for the purpose of putting the crosswalks back in, and I had talked about flower baskets…The grant I specifically went out to get was to address the crosswalk improvements, so we wouldn’t have to take it out of our regular budget, which should be a good thing.

“[I] don’t want anything negative to be written in the newspaper about that because it’s nothing but a positive thing,” Talley said, referring to her efforts to obtain the $600,000 state grant.

Talley repeatedly stressed that she didn’t feel comfortable changing the purpose after the city received the grant.

McClure asked Talley whether she’d feel comfortable using part of the grant money, if state senator Galey “said it was okay.”

Talley insisted it was “two different things” – i.e., the grant money versus the money needed to fix or move the park, funding for which she insisted should come out of the city budget.

“It’s a business district not a park district,” Talley said.

Mayor and publisher spar over self-imposed restrictions on grant

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. took issue with Talley’s repeated claims that “she had gone to Raleigh,” “she had gotten this grant,” “she had committed” to a certain way that the money would be spent.

“On whose behalf?” Boney questioned, challenging that Talley did not legally have the ability to commit the city, or city council, to spend the money the way she wanted and emphasizing that the grant itself carried no such restriction as the one Talley wanted to impose.

“This appears to me,” Boney said, “like looking a gift horse in the mouth.” After the council repeatedly bemoaned not having the money to fix the park, Boney said, the city receives a $600,000 grant, but won’t consider using any of the money toward that purpose.

For her part, Talley suggested that others, like Boney, could go “get their own grant” in Raleigh and then urge how the money should be spent.

The mayor took further umbrage at the publisher’s questioning of her seemingly unilateral decision about how the grant money would be used.

Talley said to Boney, “Only here can I be a villain for going out – because we’re going to lose the crosswalks we had – I’m a villain for going to the state of North Carolina and bringing in $600,000 to the city to be able to put back the crosswalks.  That’s what you’re trying to say.  This has nothing do with the Sesquicentennial Park.”

“No ma’am,” Boney countered.  “It has to do with what the council would decide to spend the money on.  There is no commitment that is in writing.  The money came into the city of Graham, not mayor Jennifer Talley.”

“Exactly, that’s why we’re having this meeting,” Talley responded.  “That’s why we have to get a consensus of these [council members].  Jennifer did not decide on her own how it’s going to be.  I have gone and gotten this money.  But I’m not a bad person because I went out and rallied my state legislature to get money for a particular project.  I’m going to try to hold to a commitment to what I’ve have said I wanted done.  Other people on this council might have other ideas about how to spend it, and that’s fine, but you didn’t go out and get it either, did you?”

Boney, however, reminded Talley that she had not only dismissed his suggestion to set aside part of the grant money for future repairs to the Sesquicentennial Park, she had also shut down councilman Joey Parsons when he floated the same idea earlier that evening.

Whitaker interjected, telling Boney she felt he was “unfairly beating up the mayor,” adding that “no one’s voted on this yet.

“I have talked to some business owners myself, and a large number I’ve talked to are in favor of ripping that park out and putting a building there,” Whitaker told Boney.

“We’re talking to the public,” Talley chimed in, “not just making a decision in a box as you alluded to in your last article.”

“There’s discussion except that, when I asked the question at the last meeting about using some of the $600,000 [to fix the park], the mayor immediately rejected the idea out of hand.”

Talley conceded, “If you’re going to ask me, if I go and apply for something, regardless of whether it has restrictions, and I say, ‘this is what I’m going to use the money for,’ you are absolutely right.”  The question of whether to repair the Sesquicentennial Park, she reiterated, “is and always has been a budgetary decision.”

The mayor appeared nonplussed when asked by the publisher about why the council hadn’t scheduled a public hearing, so they could hear from the city’s residents about how they would like the $600,000 to be spent.

“What are you doing?” Talley asked Boney.  “That’s what you’re up here doing,” she insisted, though she herself pointed out moments earlier that the decision had already been made about how to spend the grant money.

“You’re advocating a point we’ve already made a decision about,” she told the publisher.  “You could’ve gotten up before we made a decision about what we’re going to spent it on.  If we end up getting prices that are exorbitant and we don’t want to use it for whatever the purpose is, we’ll certainly take it under advisement what your concerns are.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial page opinion on the ongoing controversy: https://alamancenews.com/state-grant-dollars-are-grahams-not-its-mayors/

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