Once upon a time, a city decided to invest in tomorrow

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

The city council was divided. Strong feelings were obvious on both sides. At times, the discussion threatened to cross the line from debate to argument.

The topic was a big ticket expenditure that would commit the city to years and years of debt by spending millions on development of a recreational facility.

It’s a quality-of-life issue providing unique facilities for the community. But the primary purpose was not hometown needs. Its objective was enhancing tourism, welcoming visitors who would occupy hotel rooms and dine in local restaurants.

Adding to the controversy, the project’s bond issue would be financed by a tax on prepared food. For some residents, this restaurant tax was both unpopular and unwanted.

If the project was approved, council members interested in revoking the tax would find the city so financially burdened that no repeal would be practical. Without the restaurant revenue, another dedicated funding source would have to be identified to pay off the debts.

When a vote was taken, the council split 3-3. The mayor’s tie-breaking decision would settle it. He voted yes, allowing the project to move forward.

You may think that I’m referring to the 2009 Elizabethtown City Council decision regarding the Elizabethtown Sports Park. You would be wrong.

The scenario describes last Monday’s meeting of the Leitchfield City Council. The Grayson County community plans to develop an aquatic center with an elaborate swimming pool project that includes a bath house with locker rooms, two slides, a diving board, a kiddie pool and a 250-foot lazy river.

Other details are different, too. With a 2010 population of 6,699, Leitchfield’s tax attracted no controversy regarding appropriate city classification.

Also, Leitchfield took the state maximum 3 percent tax while Elizabethtown’s rate is 2 percent. Because Leitchfield is a smaller community with fewer dining options, it collected roughly $600,000 in the tax’s first year versus about $2 million in Elizabethtown.

Leitchfield’s 25-year general obligation bonds may be issued for up to $4.9 million while the Sports Park development came in at about $29 million. Like a family searching for a new home, apparently tourism commissions dream dreams based on how far revenue can stretch.

While it’s not an exact parallel either, a few years ago news reports coming out of Bowling Green were filled with arguments about downtown development. Eventually, a classy minor league ballpark was built. More recently, an impressive performing arts center opened.

When friends visit Bowling Green now and enjoy one of those facilities, they return with wonderful stories about their experiences. Typically, their tales include a sense of awe, envy and appreciation for what Bowling Green offers.

Visitors to the Sports Park report similar impressions. It influences their perception of Elizabethtown in a positive way.

Somehow, I think Leitchfield residents will hear similar stories about their city after its aquatic center opens.

While it’s not a license for reckless decisions, controversial decisions and tie-breaking votes regarding community investments can have happy endings as well as significant debt service.

Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at (270) 505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.