Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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The Blanche: Johnson & Decker want inclusion "Anybody that wants a seat will have one"

After the meeting, Chamber Director, Dennille Decker said, "If I have to make the table bigger, I will get a bigger table so that anybody that wants a seat will have one.”

LAKE CITY/COLUMBIA COUNTY – After City Manager Johnson's remark about the C-A-V-E people he said the person who wrote the letter to the City was "not informed about what we're trying to do and the value the project would bring to the City." As the meeting progressed, City Manager Johnson had a change of heart. By the end of the meeting City Manager Johnson told the group, "Anybody is invited to show up and sit at the table... If anybody wants to be a stakeholder, they can show up and participate and have the same say as anybody else."

City Manager Johnson told the group that he and Glenn Hunter, the County Economic Development Director, "understand the technical components; the elements of coordination; collaboration with the prospect; the legal consequences; the financial consequences; we understand all those things and how to bring all that stuff together."

Mr. Johnson said he wants the process to be "transparent, honest, open, and sensible" and asked someone from the stakeholder's committee to serve as the chairperson.

The Buy-in: the purpose of the committee

The City Manager explained his take on the purpose of the stakeholder committee: "I think a lot of you heard me say, 'That if we cannot get the community buy-in to do this -- this is what this group is intended to do.'... to be the force behind this initiative."

Ron Robbins said he is heading to Valdosta to check out the developers.

Businessman Ron Robbins, the owner of the new Marion Street Deli & Pub, and Dennille Decker, the head of the Chamber of Commerce expressed an interest.

A hesitant Mr. Robbins agreed to chair the committee. The committee members and Mr. Johnson agreed to provide all the help he needed. Mr. Robbins said, "I want to see the downtown grow."

Ms. Decker added, "So you can be the chair and Dale (Tompkins) can be the co-chair."

IDP – The Developers – Where are they?

City Manager Johnson advised the Committee, "The developers – you may be asking why they are not here today. I told them not to come today. It's premature for me to want them to come in, because when they come I want them to be prepared. When they come in January they are going to bring the artist's rendition; the architect's rendition; they're going to bring their ideas and be able to answer the questions."

Sandra Smith had reservations about the developer.

Mr. Johnson distributed the Economic Impact Report. He told the Committee the minimum amount of money to renovate the Blanche was 14-15 million dollars.

Mr. Johnson continued, "To put that kind of money in and get a positive return on your investment – personally, I don't believe it's possible if you don't have some subsidy from some source, it's going to be a challenge and a risk...  If it gets to a point where we see this is just going to be something that we cannot do – so be it. It ain't going to be the first old building that ever met its demise because nobody was willing to take on the challenge nor the liability of trying to make it work."

Columbia County/Lake City icon James Montgomery said, "I would like to see Lake City get back to where it was in its golden days."

Sandra Smith said she had questions about the developer, IDP. "Researching the company I came up with some questions that felt urgent to me. I am a little concerned, as an avid preservationist, how this company that usually does new build outs was going to be qualified to do a landmark property."

The City Manager suggested, "Let's wait for the company to get here and answer those kinds of questions."

City Manager Johnson steps up for inclusion

As the meeting wound down, your reporter asked how anybody else could get on the committee.

Chamber Director Decker said, "The committee's formed at this point."

Your reporter, "The handpicked committee is formed?"

Ms. Decker replied, "Yes."

Mr. Johnson expanded, "Anybody is invited to show up and sit at the table... If anybody wants to be a stakeholder, they can show up and participate and have the same say as anybody else."

Ms. Decker said she didn’t want to put the committee members in a box. “I think everybody likes the idea of it... They still want to find out more."

Your reporter followed up, “Is there an alternative plan if this falls through, or is IDP’s the only plan and if that doesn’t pan out, it just goes away?”

The group agreed that was a big question.

Lake City’s Vice Mayor Melinda Moses said, “I think this is going to be the best chance for the Council and the County Commissioners to work together."

Post Meeting

After the meeting, Ms. Decker said she is hopeful that there will be community involvement. “This is what we need. If I have to make the table bigger, I will get a bigger table so that anybody that wants a seat will have one.”

Ron Robbins, the new Chairman said, “One of the first things I am going to do is drive to Georgia and check out IDP and their project in Valdosta.”

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