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Republic seeks renewal for pair of parks sales taxes

Trio of capital improvement projects are tied to passage of Aug. 2 ballot issues

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A pair of long-standing Republic sales taxes that benefit the city’s Parks and Recreation Department are up for a vote on the Aug. 2 ballot, with the future of at least a trio of park-related projects pending passage.

The city is seeking renewal for a pair of quarter-cent sales taxes – one of which funds general park operations, while the other is used for capital improvements. Both are set to sunset in 2024. The ballot issues call for a new 25-year sunset, extending revenue collection to 2049.

The capital improvements sales tax would provide additional revenue for at least three planned projects if the issue is renewed. On deck are the $4 million development of farmers market and community event space at J.R. Martin Park, a $7 million expansion of the Republic Aquatic Center and construction of a $40 million large outdoor athletic complex on 136 acres south of James River Freeway. All three are projects city officials say residents have requested for years.

Jared Keeling, assistant city administrator and parks and recreation director, said the city budgeted each tax to generate revenue of $918,000 in 2022. However, the taxes are tracking 17% over 2021, he said.

“If we continue that rate over the remainder of the year, it’s possible those sales taxes could generate $1 million each,” he said, adding revenue from those taxes in 2021 was up 15% from 2020. “We’re growing at a good clip. But you never know; that could level off.”

Project plans
J.R. Martin Park, located on 24 acres at 300 E. Hines St., is the primary site for community events such as the Pumpkin Daze festival and the annual Have-A-Blast Patriotic Celebration.

“Our desire for that park is to bring in a large open-air pavilion for farmers markets,” Keeling said, noting the proposed two-phase project cost is estimated between $3.5 million and $4 million. It could be ready by late 2023 or early 2024.

Phase I would build the pavilion and a plaza area while moving the existing tennis courts to another city park. A second phase is expected to add outdoor classroom space and replace playground equipment. Roughly $300,000 in American Rescue Act Plan funds is planned to be used for the project, Keeling said.

Less than 2 miles away, the aquatic center, 711 E. Miller Road, is in line for the first expansion project in its 17-year history. The primary addition would be a lazy river that is 575 feet long and 10 feet wide. A pair of new slides, terraces to accommodate cabanas, a party space and lounging areas also are on tap for the project, estimated to cost between $6 million and $7 million.

“The 2024 season would be aggressive,” Keeling said, regarding the project’s completion. “We would like to hit that, but that might not happen. So, for sure by 2025.”

With plans for the Republic Sports Park and Athletic Complex in mind, the city bought 136 acres of agricultural land in September 2021 for $3.2 million from the Ruth Sawyer Trust, Keeling said. The property fronts James River Freeway for almost a mile between U.S. Highway 60 and Farm Road 156.

“We really think this is going to act as a tremendous gateway to our city,” he said. “It’ll be full of life all the time.”

If the sales tax renewal is approved, the park would be completed in two phases, eventually including 10 baseball/softball fields, eight soccer fields, up to 12 pickleball courts, fishing piers on a human-made retention pond, a nature center, outdoor classrooms, playgrounds and walking trails. Hosting future athletic tournaments is one of the goals, Keeling said. The Phase I cost is estimated between $14 million and $15 million with the total project $35 million-$40 million, according to officials. The first phase is targeted for completion in summer 2024.

“We ultimately decided we want it to have the same vibe as a complex in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, named E-Town Sports,” Keeling said, adding city officials conducted site visits and research for the project. “From the moment you walk in the gate, you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere special. That’s what we desire to do in our complex.”

Keeling said the capital improvement sales tax’s 25-year sunset would allow the city to spread its principal interest payments for the projects over a more manageable time period.

Showing confidence
The quarter-cent local parks sales tax assists in funding general park operations, including personnel, park and facility maintenance, operating expenses and events. The parks and recreation department has a $4.3 million budget for 2022, and the portion for operations is roughly $3.3 million, Keeling said. The sales tax provides around 28% of department operating revenue, he said.

“The Parks Department in general in Republic has had a long tenure of delivering high-quality events and spaces,” said Andrew Nelson, city of Republic Builds Department administrator. “Those two tax renewals are 20-plus years in place. They’ve been doing a lot of good things with those taxes to date.”

First approved by voters in 1990, the parks sales tax was renewed in 2002, Keeling said. The capital improvement sales tax was initially passed in 2003, which led to opening the aquatic center two years later. Revenue from the sales tax also led the city to build an amphitheater and veterans memorial at J.R. Martin Park in 2014.

The Republic Area Chamber of Commerce, which hosted an informational session about the sales taxes earlier this month, is not advocating for or against the ballot issues.

“We’ve always taken pretty neutral stances on a lot of these things,” said Executive Director Macy Mitchell. “I merely wanted to create a forum for public awareness of everything going on.”

Aside from his leadership role with the Republic chamber, Mitchell also is a father of three, owner of CrossFit Republic LLC and chief operations officer for All-American Home Rental and Sales. He said his family takes advantage of city park amenities, and he believes the proposed projects can be a draw for businesses and tourism.

“I’m cheering on parks and rec at the moment, not necessarily as a chamber director, but as a dad and business owner,” he said. “I’m completely positive about this. I’m typically not about greater taxes or even possible renewals. But I do agree with this.”

While acknowledging tax issues – even renewals – can be tricky in the current economic climate of high inflation, Keeling said the Republic community puts a lot of importance on its parks system.

“They have shown repeatedly confidence in our parks system through their continual support,” he said. “If they were new taxes, I’d obviously be a little more concerned. With a renewal, I still believe that the overall consensus of our Republic community is that they value our parks. The timing is still good.”

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