After nearly two years of negotiations, Sulphur Springs Independent School District trustees and Hopkins County Commissioners Court reached what some consider a historical agreement for joint use and lease of Hopkins County Civic Center Auditorium.
Commissioners approved the agreement during a 4 p.m. meeting Monday, then the school board gave unanimous approval during its 7 p.m. board meeting May 9 as well.
“This is a very, very exciting time,” said SSISD Superintendent Michael Lamb.
At the start of Monday evening’s school board meeting, Lamb noted that attorneys Carl Bryan and James Litzler, local representatives for the county and school district, had talked back and forth extensively, and county and district officials have been able to “express concerns” they may have had candidly as well.
“We appreciate Carl Bryan and James Litzler working on this. Charles Helm and Mike Lamb worked on this a lot. They really kept his alive for a lot of years, and the county, too,” SSISD Board President Don Sapaugh said Monday, following the board’s 6-0 vote (SSISD board member John Prickette was unable to attend the meeting) on the agreement.
Lamb thanked the board and county officials for their cooperation and consensus on the matter. He also extended special thanks to Tammy Cooper and Jacquelyn Brice, who served on the school board until May, for being “a big part of this process the last two years.”
Hopkins County Judge Robert Newsom also extended special thanks to Helm, who he noted not only serves on the Civic Center board, but also dedicated “a lot of personal time to make this happen.” Having Helm involved in the project seemed very fitting, a continuation of the facility’s history.
“His dad was one of the founders of the Civic Center itself,” Newsom said.
Helm said seeing the local entities joining forces for a common goal in the Civic Center brought the movement “full circle.” The county, school and city worked together for decades to create a facility that contains a medium-sized barn, auditorium and rodeo area for community activities The school and county again partnered for improvements at the facility.
Commissioner Beth Wisenbaker said the commissioners felt confident in approving the agreement, which would improve the facility to better serve the taxpayers and people served by both entities.
“This was a topic brought to me when I first got here: What about the auditorium. Do we fix it, sell it? I understand previous talks ended when they fought over the bathrooms. We’ve been working on this a full two years. We started out trying to buy the auditorium. Then, we’ve moved to a long term lease, with us fixing it,” Lamb said.
As talks continued over the last two years, issues that were raised included water problems, distances required when alcohol sales are involved in the facility if a school function is going on, and needed upgrades.
The board met again May 23 in a joint-work session to discuss the potential agreement, which would see SSISD pouring at least $2 million into auditorium repairs in exchange for a 25-year lease, which, aside from 15 agreed upon days allotted to both entities, would make the district responsible for upkeep and scheduling of the facility during those years.
Commissioners made sure that the contract protected days for traditional events held at the facility, including Dairy Festival and the Lights of Life Gala, as well as making it available to county schools should they request its use for graduations or occasions of equal importance.
Attorneys then drafted a document, which was reviewed last week by school and county officials, and presented a final draft with all requested tweaks for approval by both entities Monday.
“We believe this will be a huge break to taxpayers. If we were to build a comparable facility, it’d cost us $10-12 million. We didn’t see that as reasonable with this facility so close,” Lamb said.
“The exact dollar amount is in flux. We know they’ll be spending quite a bit. The county will look at it at that point. Looking at the complex over the last couple of years from a cost analysis standpoint, things have changed over time. It doesn’t generate revenue or heads and beds as it once did. To meet business needs, improvements to facilities are needed most,” Wisenbaker noted, adding that the auditorium brought in very little revenue last year.
SSISD will pay for the $2-3 million in renovations using fund balance.
“We’ll pull it from our fund balance, which is very healthy. It boiled down to we have it and the county didn’t,” Lamb said.
Among the items to be addressed and replaced are the sound system and equipment, curtains, lighting and seats.
“There may be a tad of redesign, maybe some bathrooms. We may have to change the seating arrangement; there may be fewer or different arrangement we have to do for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. We may improve the emergency exit, but nothing huge in redesign. With this kind of improvement, we expect people will want to use it more. We couldn’t be more excited,” Lamb said.
SSISD has consulted with WJE, the firm the district has consulted before with foundation and flooring issues at high schools and repairs to middle school floors. The consultant, according to Lamb, assures that the leaks and water issues that have plagued the Civic Center Auditorium for a number of years do “apear to be fixed” by the repairs and measures taken by the county in recent years.
Both sides will still have the 15 “set-aside” guaranteed days for use of the facility, with 10 percent of any additional booking fees the school receives from others’ use of the auditorium going to the county.
Also, the time frame for construction improvements was amended since the May 23 meeting. Instead of starting July 1, major renovation work won’t begin until next summer, Lamb noted.
The taxing entities earlier in the year had optimistically planned for the agreement to take effect June 1, but that date as of last month has been pushed back to July 1 of this year while final negotiations for the deal were being meted out. SSISD had hoped to be able to begin construction July 1 and hopefully finish up in November.
Architect Jeff Potter noted that the late start to the process would have meant the work would continue through January and February 2015, pushing construction through the Civic Center’s more heavily used periods.
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