Aiken City Council may soon make some decisions on how to spend two rounds of Capital Project Sales Tax money as the new fiscal year begins, primarily for projects on the City's Northside.
More recreational opportunities, an expansion and growth of business and a partnership between the City and nonprofit or private agencies are needed improvements suggested by residents and some Council members.
From both Capital Project Sales Tax round two and three monies, current funds for Northside projects include about $2.65 million for the construction of a park or open space on a former landfill; almost $2 million for a possible recreational facility on the Northside; about $500,000 for purchase of land for a Northside park; and available funding of about $4.5 million for a Eustis Park senior and youth center.
Many of these projects have been in the books for several years, and still today have not seen much progress.
The Aiken Standard sent a list of questions via email to each City Council member on possible opportunities to expand the Northside and obstacles that could impede that progress.
Their answers are published below. Councilmen Reggie Ebner and Philip Merry did not respond by press time.
Q: Would you like to see the development of a recreation center similar to the size and amenities of H. Odell Weeks Activities Center and Citizens Park on the Northside?
Fred Cavanaugh: “It's hard to say at this time because there are so many factors to consider, such as what do our Northside residents want, what does Council want, how much money is there to purchase property, build the center and then be able to maintain and manage it? One thought would be to buy a large piece of land, and depending on the need at the time, you build a smaller version of Citizens Park and expand it as the need arises.”
Gail Diggs: “Yes, I would love to have a facility comparable to the Odell Weeks Center complete with an exercise room, meeting rooms, at least one gym, soccer fields, a walking track, playground, tennis courts and rental space that could be available for special events.
Capital Project Sales Tax funds have been designated for it. Residents expect and deserve it.”
Dick Dewar: “I don't think we need another Odell Weeks and Citizens Park on the Northside. The citizens of Aiken, through the Capital Projects Sales Tax, have voted for massive park and recreation improvements for the Northside. ... These improvements, once defined more specifically, should more than satisfy (the) Northside park and recreational needs.”
Lessie Price: “Yes. The current Northside recreation building is nearly 50 years old, and major renovations and expansions are needed. If we continue to use the Smith-Hazel Recreation Center as a Northside facility, addressing these critical needs is imperative, in addition to parks and acquisition of properties, etc. However, I've heard from several residents that a new facility would be a welcomed addition to the Northside. ... but we do not have the funds to build a facility as large as Odell Weeks.”
Steve Homoki: “Yes, I would like to see a recreation center on the Northside to accommodate the needs of our citizens. It should be readily accessible to the users. The scale and quality should be the best that we can get with our current resources. It should be initially built to allow for add-ons and growth as needed.”
Q: What do you think should be done with the landfill site to repurpose it into a resource that will benefit the Northside and the rest of the city?
Cavanaugh: “I think the old City landfill could possibly have paths for walking, running and bicycling and possibly several other things. However, because it is a landfill, it will certainly be limited as to what can be done on the property.”
Diggs: “I am not sure how or what the landfill site could be used for. It appears that few, if any, people are interested in developing it at all. I am still not convinced of its safety.”
Dewar: “The landfill has been evaluated and parts of it have been determined not suitable for development of any kind. We should determine how much of the landfill is available for development, the money available and neighborhood input to build whatever is possible. That might include soccer fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, splash parks, picnic areas, walking trails, etc.”
Price: “Use it for green space. There are some health risks that presently exist in some areas at the landfill site. We need to assure the residents that there are no environmental (or) public health concerns/risks if this property is to be developed.”
Homoki: “The landfill obviously has some restrictions on its use. Probably the best use would be as open space, such as a nature walk. We would need to work with DHEC, S.C. Department of Environmental Health and Control, to arrive at an acceptable use of the site. If acceptable, an athletic field may be an option. A dog park may also fit in there. Some of the adjoining area may be usable for construction of some sort of recreation facility.”
Q: How can the city's administration and City Council alleviate some of the racial divides, which are exhibited by the Northside, that exist within Aiken?
Cavanaugh: “I don't think we have a racial divide in Aiken. At times we may have misunderstandings, poor communications, lack of communications, delays in getting certain things done, and none of these problems are good, but I don't think there is a racial divide in Aiken. If there is, Council and I would like to know about it so we can try to resolve the issue as soon as possible.”
Diggs: “A large majority of Northside residents, tax paying citizens, feel that the City cares very little about them and their neighborhoods. Many have reported infrastructure issues years ago, that have yet to be addressed. Take a drive through some of the streets and you will see numerous old and dilapidated housing and structures that are not only eyesores, but also pose a danger to those who live around them. ... Residents feel that this would never be allowed on the Southside.”
Dewar: “I am not aware of racial divides that are exhibited by the Northside. The City has spent millions of dollars to help Northside residents and will spend millions more as mentioned earlier. To be sure, the Northside is older and has more structural issues than Woodside or Houndslake, but these are addressed as best we can. What the City has done in coordination with Aiken Corporation in Toole Hill and Edgewood is an excellent example on the focus of the needs of this part of the City. ... The city still has issues in infrastructure to be addressed throughout the entire city. The people I meet with on the Northside are community-oriented, respectful and appreciative.”
Price: “Continue to listen to each other and work together. Look at areas where diversity and inclusion are not addressed. Discuss unemployment and the barriers for getting a job in small forums and develop solutions.”
Homoki: “I am not sure I agree with the premise of the question. You intimate that the Council and the City established the divide. Not true.”
Q: What opportunities, that aren't already in place with local nonprofits, churches, etc., do you see as possibly being organized and helping the Northside?
Cavanaugh: “Once the needs are known, we can see what can be done to help.”
Diggs: “The Northside may need an economic development group of its own. One that will focus on creating a package that could highlight some advantages of locating on (the) Northside like traffic congestion, spacious lots, etc.”
Dewar: “You can never say that you are doing enough to help the needy or less-fortunate in our city wherever they live, but I can't think of what other opportunities we could develop to help the Northside. I think we have an active dialogue with Northside residents, and two members of Council reside there. I will continue to carefully listen to their suggestions.”
Price: “There are a number of organizations in place already. However, the question is: Are they addressing the real problem and needs of the families? We need a public resource center established that individuals can walk in and share their concerns, and they will be referred to the nonprofit or agency that can help them. Many people do not get help, because they do not know where to go.”
Homoki: “The community, i.e., citizens, churches, nonprofits and volunteer organizations, has been very active in improving the quality of life for all our citizens. As long as we support them and any new initiatives, life should be improved for all of our citizens, including the Northside.”
Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.