Since news broke Friday of Spring Hill city leaders entertaining the idea of selling the Northfield Workforce Development Center, which had long been planned to house city operations such as City Hall and the library, reactions have been mixed.
Many residents cheered the idea on social media, citing the building’s inconvenient location on the southern border of the city, as well as its age, being constructed in 1990 as the former headquarters for Saturn, a now defunct General Motors automotive brand. Supporters further argued that the potential buyer of the property, Crescendo Entertainment, would bring international recognition to Spring Hill with its plans to create a one-of-a-kind rehearsal space.
Others had expressed doubts, arguing the costs associated with scrapping plans to move city operations to Northfield and start from scratch would reach millions, and would also push back plans for the expanded library, police and fire headquarters off by at least two years.
The debate on whether to sell Northfield was also front and center Tuesday during the monthly Board of Mayor and Aldermen voting meeting, with board members mostly split down the middle on the decision.
“The company that's making this offer for Northfield is an organization we all would love to have in our community; it's an excellent company, it would provide jobs,” said Mayor Rick Graham. “But, to be able to sell this city building, we need to have solutions, we need to have answers that none of us have tonight. If we sold it, we would have to find new homes for the Spring Hill Police Department headquarters, library, Planning Department, Codes Department... soon [we'll] need space [for] Public Works. So that's five departments.”
Graham also noted that the city had recently approved a $100,000 assessment of Northfield, $80,000 of which Graham called a “waste of money” as he argued the intent of the assessment — to answer the question as to whether or not Northfield had mold issues — could have been accomplished with just $20,000.
“To sell Northfield before we have solutions to those five departments would be foolish and a huge waste of taxpayer money,” Graham said. “To build these five departments' space outside of Northfield will cost us several million more dollars, and it would take several more years to purchase land, construct at a higher rate, and these departments — including the library — will have much smaller space. Northfield is still the answer with renovations.”
Graham rhetorically asked the board why, if the Northfield Building was so riddled with problems, would Crescendo Entertainment be interested in the purchase at all, and also said there was no possibility of starting from scratch without raising property taxes again.
Vice Mayor Amy Wurth was also highly critical of the idea of selling Northfield, arguing the decision to be fiscally irresponsible to taxpayers.
“To date, we have spent almost $1.4 million to get us to Northfield; we spent $8.1 [million on the building], and then we spent $1.3 [million] on the police [headquarters] design, and $625,000 on the library design, and now we spent $100,000 on an assessment,” Wurth said. “So we're not even breaking even here on this sale. To build new; City Hall expansion, that's $2 million, the police [headquarters], to build new next door is, maximum, $14.6 million, the library, $7.8 million to expand where you are today. Fire [headquarters]... we spent $4.7 million on [the Port Royal Road fire station], so we can assume we're going to invest $4.7 million to build a new fire station... and this doesn't even cover Public Works.”
Wurth said the total cost savings to taxpayers were the city to move forward with moving city operations to Northfield would be “minimum, around $17 million,” and that to start from scratch would “require a property tax increase.”
On the other side of the coin, Alderman Matt Fitterer was highly supportive of the sale, as too was Alderman John Canepari.
“I too am going to support the sale of the building, I just want to be the opposite argument here,” Canepari said. “We have mold — if we sell the building, it's not our problem. Maury County is planning to build a fire station at Beechcroft [road], so if mutual aid is good enough for ambulance services, mutual aid could be good enough for fire service — we don't need a new fire station down there. We're going to get international recognition by this, there's only one other facility like this in the United States.”
While Canepari conceded that the cost to taxpayers would certainly increase with the selling of Northfield, he pointed to the city’s projected growth and increased number of residents paying property taxes as a means to somewhat offset those costs.
“Alderman Canepari, I just want to tell you our debt ratio [is] capped, we're already there,” Graham said. “Even with the census and our increase, we're not going to have enough debt service to pay for these new buildings, I don't know where you think you're going to come up with this money. New building permits, they're not going to cover close to it.”
Canepari then suggested revisiting the city’s current debt capacity, a debt capacity being a self-imposed limit on how much debt a city will incur.
Alderman Vincent Fuqua didn’t proclaim either support or rejection of the sale, but rather cautioned his fellow board members to be wary of "kicking the can down the road," and that were the board to support the sale, they should devise a specific plan and timeline as to how they would proceed with constructing the city’s municipal buildings.
“When Northfield was purchased, I was extremely excited and voted yes on the premise; we had an opportunity to be bold and do something different, taking a whole building, reconstruct it, put your city facilities there, and in return, the citizens see cost savings,” Fuqua said. “If we want to repeal that, that's fine, but this board needs to put on their big boy pants and figure out how we do the same thing today, and not do what every single one of us has complained about, and said 'past boards have kicked the can down the road.' Until this board can unify and say [what we're going to do], and at least put some type of timeline that a future board can take and move forward, I can't in good conscious support the sale despite my desire to have this corporation come.”
Alderman Hazel Nieves shared similar sentiments to Fuqua in terms of the board needing to unify together on whatever decision they make, though did come out in support of the sale.
“We definitely have different opinions here, and can be respectful to one another in that — that's why citizens voted for us to be here, we have different points of view,” Nieves said. “When it comes to this building, I can say I am definitely going to be supporting the sale. I'm very excited for this corporate partner for our city to come in. Those of us that are expressing here tonight that we are supporting the sale of Northfield [are doing so] for the very same passion and reasons as those of you who say not. We are all aware as aldermen what the needs are for the police department, the library — none of those are forgotten. You can huff about it all you want, but the point is is that I feel the same way with us continuing to sink money into something.”
“Yes ma'am, it is very complex, but the bottom line is, where is you all's answer,” Graham asked Nieves. “Where is your solution to take care of these five buildings? Where are you going to build them and fund them? Are you advocating for a property tax increase? That's what we're looking at.”
“With all due respect, I don't have the answer right now, but that doesn't mean that Northfield is the answer,” Nieves responded. “And just because I don't have the answer right now doesn't mean that it's not going to happen or it's not going to come. And I'm not asking for an increase in taxes.”
The board is set to further address the potential sale of Northfield on Monday, March 2 during their next work session meeting. That meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 199 Town Center Parkway.