Western Fairfield Recreation Facility Remains in Limbo

FAIRFIELD – A much anticipated and long-awaited vote by County Council on the fate of a recreation facility for Western Fairfield County will have to wait a little longer. After hearing impassioned pleas from citizens of Western Fairfield – the likes of which Council has been hearing since mid May – Council voted 4-0 Monday night to table any decision on construction of a recreation building until their next meeting, July 8. Council members David Brown (District 7) and Mikel Trapp (District 3) were absent Monday night.

The vote to table was clearly not what residents of Western Fairfield had come to hear Monday night.

“We have some dire needs in terms of serving the people of the Dawkins community,” the Rev. Vandell Davis, pastor of Dawkins Church, said during the public comments portion of Monday’s meeting. “Our young people have no place to go and play, and swim or to even walk in the community. We hope that after this evening, things will change. Whatever we can do as a church and a community, we will be glad to pull up our sleeves and help.”

Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) asked for the delay, citing the absence of Trapp, who represents part of that community. Marcharia also said he had asked County Administrator Phil Hinely for a site evaluation of the land – 8.12 acres off Ladds Road – to determine what it would cost to prepare the land for construction, and asked that the results of that evaluation be brought to the July meeting. Carolyn Robinson (District 2) also requested an economic impact study to determine the cost of erecting and outfitting the building.

“I don’t believe we put anything in the budget that will start July 1 to actually man this building and this facility and anything else that goes into running that facility,” Robinson said.

The building itself, she said, is already in the hands of the County, and that is one of the things many members of Western Fairfield find frustrating.

“We want to know when you are going to deliver and install the building that you approved, purchased and have somehow put into storage for years,” Dawkins resident Jeff Schaffer said during his turn at the public comments microphone. “What the people of Western Fairfield want is to know when you are going to deliver on your promise to erect the building you approved and purchased years ago for Western Fairfield’s recreation center. We want that building delivered. We want it immediately. Tonight you have the opportunity to do the right thing for the people who elected you. Show us you can do it.”

Council’s commitment to recreation in Western Fairfield reaches back eight years when, according to minutes from their Feb. 28, 2005 meeting, Council voted 5-1 “to provide to the (now defunct) Recreation Commission $500,000, in addition to their budget, to provide a county-wide recreation plan, beginning with a facility in Western Fairfield.” Councilman Brown voted against the measure, which was put forth by then Councilman Carnell Murphy, who was also Executive Director of the Recreation Commission at the time.

By May of 2006, the Recreation Commission had inked a contract with MAR Construction of Lexington, S.C. to begin work on the site, which included $10,000 for clearing the property and installing a septic tank, $5,000 for sidewalks and $453,710 for delivery and construction of a building, purchased from a company in Alabama. The property for the facility had been leased to the Commission by S.C. Electric & Gas (SCE&G) in 1989 for the sole purpose of recreational facilities.

“The County gave the Recreation Commission $500,000 and asked them to sit down with us to plan where the building would go,” Hinely explained recently. “Before we could, they began construction on the site. There was no bid on the building purchase, which came to nearly $500,000, leaving nothing left over for staffing, plumbing, things like that.”

In the meantime, Council and the Recreation Commission had fallen into a legal battle over dual office holding (in the case of Murphy) and a political struggle over whether or not the Commission was an independent body or an arm of the County government. In the end, the County prevailed, replacing independent-minded Commission members with members whose only official act would be to dissolve the Commission, thereby paving the way for the County operated Recreation Department. In the midst of this struggle, the County used a clause in the lease agreement between SCE&G and the Commission, which stated that no permanent improvements could be made to the property without prior written consent of SCE&G, to halt construction at the site.

Fast forward to 2008: With construction stopped, the County now faced a lawsuit by MAR, which had a prefabricated building on its hands, ready to deliver. According to County documents from the negotiations, the County had the option of either paying $79,500 and receiving the building, or walking away empty handed for $39,000.

“I recommended to Council that we pay the $39,000 and be done with it,” Hinely said. “We knew nothing about the building, if it was the right size to meet the needs of that area, or whatever. But Council opted to take the building.”

A few weeks later, the building was delivered, in crates. Hinely said it is currently stored at the Armory on Old Airport Road. In the intervening years, Hinely said, the County has learned that the building does not meet the current fire codes. The property off Ladds Road, meanwhile, has reverted back to its natural state, grown over with pine trees. Hinely speculated that there was at least $50,000 in prep work to do to make the property ready for any building. The balance of the $500,000 designated for the aborted project, he said, remains in the County’s budget.

The strange and terrible saga of the recreation building with no home, however, does little to assuage the residents of Western Fairfield.

“I’m not asking you why you did what you did,” Schaffer said Monday night. “I’m not concerned with that. If you think a rational comment like ‘other districts are entitled to a recreation center too,’ well, we won’t disagree. Just be sure you make them wait as long as we’ve waited, after you’ve approved it, before moving on. Dawkins is no longer the dark and forgotten corner.”

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