Cultural Center moves on; Courthouse Square tabled


JASPER — One project moved forward, but another stalled at the Jasper Common Council meeting Wednesday night.

The council pushed the Jasper Cultural Center another step ahead, but tabled a decision on moving forward with the Courthouse Square renovation. Had the council voted to move forward with the Courthouse Square, Rundell Ernstberger Associates of Indianapolis would have moved forward with final design and construction documents. Instead, the council asked for cost estimates for the project using concrete, asphalt and concrete with paver accents, rather than the currently proposed all paver parking spaces and sidewalks.

Council members cited concerns about the pavers — which are durable and decorative slabs used to pave roads and paths — and the $4.5 million price tag on the project as reasons for tabling a decision. Councilmen Dave Hurst, Kevin Manley and Earl Schmitt said they’d heard nothing but negative comments from their constituents about both the project and the pavers.

“I think they’re beautiful, but the people don’t want them,” Schmitt said. “I have to stay with what they tell me.”

Councilwoman Nancy Eckerle said she’d heard both good and bad opinions on the pavers, but was against them because she didn’t see how they’d help set Jasper apart.

“So many cities are using pavers ... do we really want to look like every other city in the United States?” she asked. “I don’t think so.”

Council members also struggled to justify spending $4.5 million on the Courthouse Square when the city has two other major projects — the Parklands and the Jasper Cultural Center — underway. For Councilman John Schroeder, the timing just isn’t right for another major project. He said the Courthouse Square project needed to stay within the $2 million budget set when the council first suggested the project a few years ago to allow the city to prioritize the Cultural Center.

Councilman and Redevelopment Commission President John Bell, who serves on the committee working on the project along with several city official and downtown merchants, said the timing for the Courthouse Square was perfect, partly because of the other projects going on within the city.

“We ought to feel very blessed that we have all this going on in the City of Jasper,” he said.

Bell also pointed out that the city has been spending less than it takes in for roughly a decade, allowing the coffers to build up. Money is there to cover all the projects, Bell said. Other council members preferred to forego funding the Courthouse Square at this time to ensure money would be available for unforeseen costs with the Parklands or Cultural Center.

The Downtown Square proposal funded the project through a $1 million matching grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation, a $2 million bond, and annual maintenance budgets from the utility and street departments. The utility and street departments have the infrastructure on the Courthouse Square on their list of areas that need attention. For example, the streets around the square have rated three out of 10 with the street department’s rating system since 2011. Bell said the department has been waiting for a Downtown Square project such as the one proposed to do the work.

Hurst pointed out that if the scope of the Courthouse Square project shrank and the cost came down to the originally proposed $2 million, the project’s budget may be able to cover the street and utility costs, allowing the departments to use their annual budgets in other areas of the city. Council members wanted to see a scope and estimates that stick to the original plan of $2 million before voting. Both Bell and Mayor Terry Seitz pointed out that if the scope of the project changed, the city could lose the Community Crossings grant. That said, the state plans to continue the Community Crossings grant, so if the scope changed and the city lost the current grant, it could reapply with the new scope, Clerk-Treasurer Juanita Boehm said.

Matt Eckerle from H.J. Umbaugh Associates of Indianapolis, the city’s financial counsel, attended the meeting with a report on how the city could fund both a $4 million bond for the Jasper Cultural Center and the $2 million bond to cover part of the Courthouse Square project using economic development income tax (EDIT) funds. From his perspective, Jasper is in good financial shape. The city is one of a few in the state with no current debt and it could cash flow a $4 million bond, although that would deplete the EDIT funds. To avoid depleting the funds, however, the city plans to take out bonds, which are similar to home loans, and make the payments from the EDIT funds instead.

Instead of approving a $4 million bond for the Cultural Center and a $2 million bond for the Courthouse Square, as Eckerle’s presentation showed, the council decided to take out one $6 million bond for the city’s portion of the Jasper Cultural Center, which will unite the Jasper Community Arts Commission and Jasper Public Library in one building at the Hoosier Desk site, located at the corner of Fourth and Main streets. The Cultural Center as a whole is estimated at $12 million, with the Jasper Library contributing roughly $6 million for their section of the building and half of the shared spaces, and the city contributing roughly $6 million for the art center’s section of the building and half of the shared spaces.

Bell was concerned that a $6 million bond for the Cultural Center would make a later bond for the Courthouse Square not feasible. 

“I just want to keep our options open as much as possible,” Bell said.

Eckerle said there would still be ways to fund the Courthouse Square, should the council decide to move forward with that project later. The other council members assured Bell that they don’t want to stop the Courthouse Square project, but rather to scale it down.

The council also appropriated funds from Jasper LEADs, a fundraising campaign for the Cultural Center, Jasper Arts, The Astra Theatre and the downtown, to cover the city’s portion of the land acquisition costs and final design and construction documents for the Cultural Center. The Jasper Public Library purchased the Hoosier Desk site for $864,000 in December. The council’s action Wednesday allows the city to repay the library. The action also appropriated $500,000 to cover the city’s half of the design and construction documents, which City Properties of Louisville, the private developer partnering with the city and the library on the Cultural Center, will complete.

The appropriations cleared the way for the Cultural Center to move forward and were met with applause from the audience.

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