County moving forward on recreation center

By Justin Boron

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he is getting closer to acquiring property for a recreation center near Riverdale and hopes to have an announcement about the project within the next 30 days.

Property acquisition for the center in the northwest commission district has been held up by several false starts. The project also is snared in an ongoing controversy over the degree to which the county will carry out $40 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program.

Critics of the county's plan say the government is not holding up its end of a bargain resulting from a 2003 referendum for a one-cent sales tax.

Part of the SPLOST referendum promised to set aside the sales tax money for recreation. The other part set aside $200 million in sales tax for road improvements.

In the face of criticism, Bell has maintained the county will build all six centers.

If and when the property acquisition does happen, Bell said construction would be under way shortly thereafter.

"Construction folks have their hats on and are ready to go," he said.

A property purchase for a center would breath new life into the SPLOST recreation program that critics say has not made enough progress since it began in January 2004.

Debate over recreation centers undulated from Bell's statement in February suggesting the county would not be able to complete all six of the projects. The comments, coming amid the most recent legislative session, were driven by a bill that limits the amount of fuel sales tax the county can collect from Delta Air Lines. The law took effect July 1.

Since Bell's comment, citizens and local leaders have rallied around the center issue, refusing to let it die.

Leading the charge has been Dexter Matthews, the president of the Clayton County NAACP.

"It's going to be 20 months," he said, referring to the duration of the program. "We're not impressed with one center.

"There should have been two or three of them by now."

Matthews also has raised the possibility of litigation if the county fails to produce what he says it promised in the SPLOST referendum.

Much of the disagreement citizens have had with the county is over what constitutes a recreation center.

The county's plan for the six centers include additions to existing projects. One of them is the natatorium behind the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro, which is currently under construction.

Matthews said he won't back down until six new centers are produced separate from existing projects.