Citizens discuss future of Woodmen
Photo Credit: Michelle Taylor
Voices were heard Tuesday night when Lenoir County citizens filled the banquet hall of the Woodmen Community Center to discuss how officials will handle the center in the future.
Members of the community spoke for and against the city owning and operating the community center. While many were in support of the city, there were still a few who questioned the process.
"This is very confusing, all the different financial buckets," Jim Perry said while addressing the council.
Kinston City Council Mayor Pro Tem Felicia Solomon requested the public meeting after a discussion at the June 4 city council meeting regarding the donation of the Woodmen Community Center to the city.
“The goal is for us to be able to hear your feeling, on the right side, the left side, the pros, the cons,” Solomon said. “We just want to hear you, your voice matters. How you feel it matters.”
Those in attendance listened as Kinston City Manager Tony Sears spoke about how this process began.
Sears said it started in 2016 when he and the county manager were invited to a meeting Woodmen of the World officials, who asked if the city and the county were interested in purchasing the center.
“At the time we did not entertain the purchase of the facility,” Sears said. “We said we didn’t think we were in the position to purchase the facility.”
They were again approached in the fall of 2017 to see if the city and the county would be willing to receive a donation from the facility. Since then, Sears said there have been meetings between the city and the county to discuss whether or not to accept it.
“We have had conversations with the Woodmen about different things inside the contract,” Sears said. “We didn’t think there were some terms and agreements in there that was in the best interest of the community.”
Citizens took turns speaking about their concerns at the forum. While many questions centered on questions over finances for the facility, Sears said it is paramount to the council and the body to make sure that the facility is financially stable and can be self-supportive.
“In order for the city to receive the (center), there has to be one condition above all else and that is that no tax dollars will go into the operation of the facility,” Sears said.
Citizens like Mike Tribula spoke to the council about the financial concerns and the needs of the city regarding the donation.
“If we can keep it the same way, I’m all for it," Tribula said. "It’s a great facility and great for the city but if we look two or three years down the road, can you guarantee me today that no more tax money from the city will go into the running of this business?"
While some citizens discussed the importance of finances in this decision, others spoke about their emotions regarding the facility. Brooketah Banks spoke about her love for the facility and her employment.
“We have talked a lot tonight about numbers, budgets and how we’re going to afford to keep this place alive, but I have only heard so much about families, communities, children and what this place means,” Banks said. “This place is important.”
Banks said working at the center is a part-time job for her, but for others, it is a full-time job. Josh Bass, aquatics director for the Lions Adventure Water Park, also spoke about the possible job loss if the center were to close.
“You saw some of them earlier but the 150 employees we employ every summer at the water park that we hire every year; (it) gives them an opportunity to put something on their resume,” Bass said. “I hope you all do consider the jobs that would be lost if you decided to close this place.”
Dorian Edwards, a Kinston citizen, gave a different perspective on this opportunity for the city.
“I don't think we’re here to decide whether it’s going to stay open or closed, we’re deciding if we are going to be proactive or reactive,” Edwards said.
Edwards compared the situation to being in a five-year marriage with the Woodmen.
“Now the Woodmen center wants a divorce and they’re going to give us the house,” he said. “Also they have made it known that at any time if this becomes a burden where they are going to have to use tax dollars they will close it, sell it or do something with it. I think we can trust our leaders at their word that it will not use tax dollars.”
The final citizen to speak, Perry asked council members to look at all the information and consider all the facts before making a decision.
“I want you to get the best deal you can for our citizens going forward,” Perry said. “Please have the courage to understand all of the information and to protect the people of our community.”
As the meeting adjourned, Solomon thanked everyone for sharing their thoughts and feelings.
“We can’t thank you enough for allowing your voices to be heard because that is what matters,” she said. “There is no secret that this is an extremely hard decision to make but I think when you look around the room this evening that it’s going to take all of us to listen to each other to make the best decision for the community.”