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Tourism authorizes funds to close out sports park construction

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Shortfall realized after city opted not to take full bond amount

By Marty Finley

Elizabethtown Planning Director Ed Poppe could not hide his frustration Wednesday morning during Elizabethtown Tourism Commission’s monthly meeting.

Poppe has been trying to close the final 10 contracts on construction of Elizabethtown Sports Park and said he cannot fathom why some contractors have not filed invoices.

“They haven’t been on site for four months and they can’t send me a bill for $2,000,” he said.

Poppe asked the commission to authorize up to $500,000 to pay the outstanding bills for miscella-neous expenses at the park, which opened in July. He said the city has estimated around $476,000 to finalize the contracts but asked for flexibility because the city is wrestling with some contractors over cost.

The shortfall was realized because the city opted not to finance the full $29 million in bonds authorized by Elizabethtown City Council to cover construction costs. Mayor Tim Walker said the city chose to bond $28.5 million because early reports did not forecast a need for the full amount. Walker told the commission there was no malice involved but rather an error in calculations in an attempt to save money on the project.

The commission approved the amount and set a repayment schedule of four years to the city after a lengthy debate. The motion hinges on the council approving tourism’s budget revision, said Elizabethtown Tourism & Convention Bureau Executive Director Sherry Murphy.

Commissioner Chris Flanagan said tourism clearly owes the bill but does not have the money needed to pay it all now. He suggested a fee schedule be set so the bureau could reimburse the city over a reasonable amount of time.

Patrick Clark, chairman of the commission, suggested tourism officials consider pulling the money from the sports park escrow account and operational reserves. Between the two accounts, most of the money needed is accounted for and the debt could be paid immediately, he said.

“At this point, we don’t have to make that decision,” Clark told the group.

But Murphy said the commission would have to pull from other resources to make up the full sum of $500,000.

“It really hits our budget hard,” Murphy said.

Commissioner Jim Long said he could not vote to deplete tourism’s reserves because it would leave the organization vulnerable if repairs are needed to its building or new equipment is needed for the park.

Councilman Marty Fulkerson, the city’s liaison to tourism, said new equipment for the park would be categorized as an operational expense, which is the city’s responsibility. Once the contracts are paid, he said, tourism will meet its commitment to construct the park and outfit it with equipment and supplies needed to open.

Fulkerson said the city could “front” the costs and suggested a four-year repayment schedule as an alternative. He opposed draining tourism’s reserves because it could stall the organization’s “forward motion.”

“Do not raid the coffers,” Fulkerson said.

Weakening the tourism bureau, Walker added, would not be in the best interest of the community.

Flanagan and Fulkerson said the commission could allow itself the flexibility to pay off the debt sooner should excess revenues surface through the city’s 2 percent restaurant tax. Walker also suggested the commission review its budget each year to determine if extra money is available to pay down the debt earlier.

When Murphy asked Poppe if he would have the final costs by June, he said his frustration level will be through the roof if it takes that long.

“I’m pushing to know by the end of the year,” he said.

Poppe said the city is committed to keeping the total cost of construction at less than $29 million.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.