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Kenly residents: Can we afford new civic center?

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KENLY — An overflow crowd of more than 40 people met during a special town meeting Sept. 11 to gather public input on the Kenly Community Center site’s future use.

The building is located on South College Road at the Kenly Parks and Recreation Center and once served as part of Kenly Elementary School before the school moved outside of town and joined with Glendale School in the 1990s to form the current Glendale-Kenly Elementary School.

Town Administrator Michael Douglas opened the meeting by saying he was extremely happy with the large turnout.

“This is community engagement and I love it,” said Douglas.

Douglas said information gained from the session would be presented to Kenly Town Council members.

“A new civic center could be used by our citizens for banquets, receptions and all kinds of functions,” said Douglas. “Council and I feel it would be good for the town and would benefit the entire community.”

Douglas said the building was once a great resource for the town of Kenly with lots of great events being held there. He added the building had also fallen onto hard times over the years with a variety of issues including vagrants living inside the facility and evidence of rampant drug use inside the building.

Douglas said the issue involved various resources and expense issues and was all about what kind of facility the town could get for the amount of funding that could be obtained.

Douglas explained the cost estimate for asbestos removal and demolition of the building was $261,000 and that Johnston County commissioners have already approved an $85,000 appropriation to be used toward the building’s demolition along with a plan to build a new multipurpose civic center at the same location.

Douglas brought up the possibility of combining a library and a community building into one, explaining the current library is landlocked and is at maximum capacity.

The first person to speak from the floor was former Kenly councilman Jimmy Little, who said there were several reasons why a new facility should not be built at this time.

“We had a building there before that was ideal and we were unsuccessful in keeping it up or getting enough people to use it,” said Little. “The previous building failed because Kenly town commissioners did not want to set aside funds for its upkeep. We already have a community building in Kenly with the American Legion building that is not fancy, but it is more than adequate although it is also not being fully utilized.”

Little said area churches have enough room in their fellowship halls to accommodate most community functions. If the civic center’s built, he said, Kenly would have to increase its property tax rate — a move he opposes.

“We cannot afford to have a building that we cannot pay for,” said Little.

Little also made the suggestion that instead of completing the project in one step it, could be phased in gradually by building a library first.

Douglas said he liked that idea and it was something he had not thought about previously.

Other comments from audience members covered questions or suggestions related to the cost of building a new facility, along with the insurance, utility and upkeep costs involved.

At the suggestion of the town tearing down the building and selling the land, Douglas said that was not possible since the town does not own the land.

“When I moved here almost 30 years ago there were five men in the community who put up $5,000 each of their own money as seed money to take an option on the land that eventually became KPARC and I think it is one of the best things we have ever done in Kenly,” said Ernie Brame, Kenly 95 Petro general manager. “When investing, you can be a risk-taker, a caretaker or an undertaker, and for the last 30 years, Kenly has been in a state somewhere between caretaker and undertaker.

“We have finally got somebody as town manager with some vision and I think we at least we ought to take a look at what he says. We have an opportunity here and we need to be careful, but I hate to see us just sit back twiddling our thumbs.”

Brame continued: “I believe if we give Michael Douglas enough time, he will be able to come up with some more money through grants. I understand that we have a high tax rate in Kenly, but it’s time we at least need to do something.”

“I think Ernie Brame is right, but I don’t think we can build a community center without raising taxes,” said Sanford Barnes, who added that Kenly already has the highest tax rate of any town in Johnston County. I am suspicious that we would be biting off more than we can chew.”

Following the question and comment segment of the forum, Douglas listed several initiatives taking place in Kenly.

Douglas said work was expected to begin within a few days on replacing the sidewalks on Second Street between the Johnstonian News office to Davis Drug. The project will include adding benches and trees, moving stop signs, removing old metal poles currently serving no purpose and removing the former town hall building and water tower.

“We are also working on clearing the canals and ditches in town and NCDOT has announced it will be repaving (N.C.) 222 East out of town all the way the Wayne County line,” Douglas said. “Several local businesses have also stepped up to the plate and have begun making repairs on their buildings, and I have received inquiries from five business owners asking about the façade grants that are available in downtown Kenly.”

Douglas said Kenly is also in the running for several grants, including a $2.1 million grant for water and sewer improvements.

“My job is to continue fighting for grants to improve our quality of life in Kenly,” said Douglas.

Following the meeting, Douglas said he was pleased with the community involvement and felt a great deal was accomplished.

“A lot of good questions were asked at this meeting tonight,” said Little.

“I think this was an extremely positive meeting and one of the best town meetings we have had in years,” said Brame. “We all left as friends, but we just need to do something in Kenly.”