City, county cooperate on O.T. Sloan, economic development projects
A group of city and county leaders met Monday and came closer to finalizing plans on both a massive sports complex at O.T. Sloan Park and a new building to house various planning and economic development agencies.
The O.T. Sloan idea is much earlier in the planning stages than the economic development building. At Monday's joint meeting, several members of the Sanford City Council and Lee County Board Commissioners agreed that splitting the costs of a feasibility study for the park is a good idea.
Commissioners Kirk Smith, Jim Womack and Amy Dalrymple will take the plan back to the rest of the county board for official approval. Sam Gaskins, Rebecca Wyhof and Mayor Chat Mann will do the same with the city council.
The feasibility study will examine where to place different ball parks and playing fields, as well as parking, the impact on the Boys and Girls Club and its O.T. Sloan facility, and secondary features like a potential dog park. Sanford is in the running for a $100,000 prize to build a dog park; finalists in the contest will be announced Friday.
On Monday, Mann told the group the feasibility study will likely cost around $30,000, although the Sanford Area Soccer League has offered to pitch in $5,000 to bring the price tag down some.
The officials appeared to be in a sharing mood Monday, tentatively agreeing to split the remaining costs of the study, as well as the costs when local departments from both governments that work with businesses — like planning, code enforcement, environmental regulation and others — move into the historic Buggy Factory downtown on Chatham Street.
The new Sanford-Lee County Partnership for Prosperity would also call the Buggy Factory home.
The partnership, a merger of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lee County Economic Development Corporation, has public and private funding. It will be committed to marketing Sanford and recruiting businesses here.
The city and county should split the rent, utilities and other costs for their part of the building evenly, the officials agreed Monday, while the partnership would pay for its share of the space.
Mann praised the quick decision, saying he wants to get everyone moved into the one-stop-shop this summer — and that having a centerpiece like the building should help the partnership with fundraising.
Several officials said while helping businesses make it easier to move here will help, Sanford also must be a place people want to live.
Mann said the city is working on that through its multi-million-dollar beautification projects, which include the sports complex as well as sidewalks, greenways and other pedestrian-friendly improvements.
Womack, who has formerly consulted with police departments, asked about the city's recent uptick in violent crime — and specifically what city police are doing, if anything, to establish a better presence in high-crime areas and work the community.
Mann said community policing, of course, involves both the community and the police. Neighborhoods have been stepping up with more citizen watch programs, he said, as well as the Nation of Big Brothers anti-violence campaign that newly appointed city council member Byron Buckles founded. But police sometimes run into obstacles because of the nature of the violence, he said.
City Manager Hal Hegwer explained that police believe the problem is that most of the violence is caused by two small groups of people who are feuding with each other, which makes their crimes difficult to predict and stop.
"We've got some people who tend to want to shoot each other and not work with police, and community policing isn't going to work with them no matter how hard you try," he said.
The police do have another strategy, however. They will round up the worst offenders in town and offer them a deal: Accept help finding education and a job in return for living crime-free, or face federal charges and strict prosecution for future crimes.
"We're going to get those repeat offenders — who will not be rehabilitated, who will not participate in education or jobs — in prison for eight to 15 years," Hegwer said. "No pleas."
Womack said that's a good start, but he'd also like people to put more attention on judges and prosecutors who contribute to the plea deals sometimes offered to people accused of violent crimes.
"This is unconscionable that this stuff is happening over and over again," he said. "Some of these guys are in their 20s and it's their second or third violent act. ... We need to make sure the judge understands there's public pressure."