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Columbia County Observer

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Lake City/Columbia County News

Lake City's Blanche Hotel: $15,000,000 Renovation Discussion Off & Running

City Manager Johnson reads the anonymous letter as the Chamber's Decker listens.

LAKE CITY/Columbia County, FL – Yesterday's 8:30 a.m. discussion by the handpicked "Grassroots Blanche Stakeholder Committee" went off on time as City Manager Wendell Johnson led the discussion of the proposed $15,000,000 renovation of the downtown landmark.

Ninety minutes after a bit of a shaky start, the committee seemed to have found itself heading for a community project in which the pro and con sides are going to have to come together to make this successful for Columbia County/Lake City and put its historic downtown back on the map.

The Committee Members Identify Themselves

Dale Tompkins: Pastor of Church on the Way; downtown property owner.

Dennille Decker:  Director of the Columbia County/Lake City Chamber of Commerce.

Wendell Johnson:  Lake City, City Manager.

Robin Green:  President of Peoples State Bank. Involved in downtown since late 80s.

Sandy Kishton:  ReMax realtor.

Glenn Hunter: Former School Board member; Columbia County Economic Development Director.

Brian Dobson:  VP academic programs Gateway College; sitting in for Chuck Hall, Gateway's president.

Ron Robbins:  Owner - Mainstreet Deli & Pub; businessman; said, “Neat to see people walking the streets.”

Todd Wilson (absent): Sitting in for publisher Todd Wilson was Lake City Reporter, cub reporter Sarah Loftus.

Invited to sit at the table, but not invited to be a member of the Committee was Lake City's Sandra Smith. She introduced herself: "I'm Sandra Smith. 34 year member of the downtown and most of the organizations at one time or another and previous owner of historic property. I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to know what's going on."

City Manager Johnson followed, "Actually, this is just for committee members. I think we are certainly going to have time for questions this morning, but the input and the discussion is for the Committee, but I do want to introduce two Council members that are here."

They were Vice Mayor, Councilwoman Melinda Moses, and Councilman Eugene Jefferson.

Stage One: the meeting begins

Ms. Decker said Glenn Hunter and Wendell Johnson would "give a little bit of an overview of how we got here; where we've come from; and what the plan is see if this is the right fit for downtown Lake City."

City Manager Johnson ran the meeting and did most of the talking.

City Manager Johnson explained, "It's a complex situation that we're beginning. I want to make sure that everybody understands that we're not here this morning to cut a deal. We're here to explore the fundamental, philosophical, sensible thing to make this project work, if possible."

He continued, "I want to start off by reading a letter I received in the mail this morning so that all the board members, stakeholder members who've just introduced themselves and flying their flags can be put back into their place."

 The letter.

The City Manager read the complete letter adding his own commentary. It is not clear how much of the letter was in jest, but serious reservations were articulated. Mr. Johnson began, "The ten members of the committee formed is once again a special group of people who will make money off the project."

Special mention was made in the letter of Todd Wilson, the publisher of the Lake City Reporter, who has stated that the purpose of the newspaper is to be a cheerleader for Lake City/Columbia County.

City Manager Johnson read the anonymous writer's view of Todd Wilson, "Todd Wilson, a publisher to publicize Council's agenda and sell to taxpayers an unworthy project."

Mr. Johnson concluded the letter and told the committee, "This is a project that is going to be of immense complexity."

Mr. Johnson added that the New Market Tax Credit Program, which is being sold as the only way to finance the project, is complex. To date, no public official, no member of the handpicked grassroots Blanche committee, and no one from IDP, the company that is promoting the Blanche renovation project, has articulated or been able to articulate how the Program works.

Referring to the letter writer and the opposition, Mr. Johnson asked the handpicked volunteers "to be committed and to understand that there's gonna be, as this silly, uninformed uneducated person, who is cowardly and not willin' to put their name on somethin' like that or to come to a meeting and voice those concerns and ask questions - we're gonna have opposition."

In part II, The City Manager has a change of heart – inclusion will be the name of the game.

City Manager Johnson: words for those who will oppose the project

Mr. Johnson continued, "We could invite Jesus Christ to come and occupy the Blanche and restore it miraculously through his power and we would have people that would oppose that, probably. We've got our naysayers -- cave people - C-A-V-E - Citizens Against Virtually Everything."

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