The City Council on Monday authorized the mayor to start negotiating land purchases for the Decatur Downtown Commons project that would be anchored by a new recreation center on West Moulton Street to replace the Aquadome Recreation Center.

The Commons project that also would include trails and mixed-use development has been in the city plans for more than a decade but has not been viewed as a priority until recently.

“The city should have started trying to buy these properties even before a rec center became part of the discussion,” Council President Jacob Ladner said.

In a settlement agreement finalized last week, the city agreed to deed the 25-acre Aquadome property to 3M Co., which disposed of industrial chemicals in the closed landfill upon which the rec center sits.

3M also agreed to pay the city $35 million for "development and construction of a new public recreational facility." 3M will not take ownership of the Aquadome property until a new recreation center is built, although it agreed to pay the $35 million within a month of the settlement being finalized. 

The council majority is focused on building the new rec center about a mile from the Aquadome on the city-owned Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) property north of West Moulton Street alongside the CSX railroad tracks. That would put the rec center at the south end of the proposed Decatur Downtown Commons project, which would lie west of the railroad tracks and along Dry Creek, extending north to Finley Island Drive Northwest

The resolution that the council passed 4-1 Monday only gives Bowling permission to negotiate and come to purchase agreements. He would then have to present the agreements to the City Council for final approval.

The city already owns the 7.4-acre ADM site and two properties on the west side of the creek. Bowling will be talking to the owners of roughly five to six properties on the east side of Dry Creek and about four or five on the west side of the creek.

Bowling and Ladner said there have been some preliminary inquiries with some of the property owners. Ladner said attorney Barney Lovelace, who represented the city in the 3M case, made some inquiries.

"I don't know if (Lovelace) made them on his own or at the request of someone," Ladner said.

Ladner said it is essential the city reach a deal on 7.23 acres owned by Megabrook Processors Inc. just to the west of the ADM property, and the two parcels adjacent to ADM totaling 16.6 acres owned by Union Compress Warehouse.

Ladner said the Megabrook property is for sale with a list price of $150,000. Union Compress is an active business, but Ladner said the Limestone County-based company’s owners are aware of the city’s interest in buying their property.

“In my opinion, we have to buy both properties if we are going to build a recreation center there,” Ladner said.

Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake estimated last week that the city would need about 14 or 15 acres for a recreation center.

Neighborhood center?

Councilman Billy Jackson was the lone vote against the resolution Monday, saying the council hasn’t taken the time to look for alternatives to the ADM property.

Jackson said placing a rec center at the ADM property moves it too far away from the neighborhood “the Aquadome was intended to serve” in Southwest Decatur.

Jackson said the recreation centers, when they were built in the early 1970s, were “systematically located” throughout the city to serve specific neighborhoods.

“It was intended to serve, at that time, the citizens of District 4 and District 1, not the entire city,” Jackson said. “When you move it that far away, it’s not serving the people of District 4 (now in District 1), and it’s no longer serving the people who are farther out in District 1.”

Jackson said the council “isn’t replacing an Aquadome. It’s just building a recreation center that will be serving other people.”

Councilman Hunter Pepper said he agrees that the move impacts his District 4, but the new recreation center “isn’t just for one specific area.” He said people are more mobile today.

“If I want to go to Chick-fil-A, I just drive down there,” Pepper said. “If I don’t have a vehicle, I just walk.”

Pepper said, “It only takes 20 minutes to get anywhere in this town.”

In a public meeting last week, some Aquadome-area residents expressed safety concerns for children who now walk to the rec center. 

Pepper last week had said he planned to file a motion tabling the resolution authorizing Bowling to negotiate land purchases, agreeing with Jackson at that time that the council was moving forward on the new rec center without adequate discussion. Since then, he said Monday, he has researched the issue.

“People should go and explore and do their research like I did,” Pepper said. “I took the time to look and I think it’s a good location for a recreation center.”

Councilman Kyle Pike said he likes that the ADM property is centrally located and is easily accessible for his District 2 residents and others.

“We’re going to be able to build a state-of-the-art facility with more amenities than the Aquadome has,” Pike said.

While a number of Aquadome-area residents spoke out against the move at the public meeting last week, Bowling said the Aquadome “is one of the least used in the city.”

Lake confirmed that attendance at the Aquadome has not been good since Brookhaven Middle School closed in 2018. He said children from the neighborhood don’t come to the center.

“We’re getting some use from people involved in activities like pickleball, and Spikeball is becoming popular,” Lake said.

Environmental testing

Jackson said he’s also concerned about possible chemical contamination from the ADM buildings, which originally were used as cotton warehouses. He pointed out that a lot of pesticides, some toxic, were used on cotton.

“There’s a reason cotton is known as the ‘dirty crop,'” Jackson said.

Jackson said he is concerned that the council doesn’t know the environmental impact that the cotton chemicals may have had on the ADM property.

“We’re moving from one contaminated property to one that could be just as bad,” Jackson said.

City Attorney Herman Marks said the city had a two-phase environmental study done on the ADM property.

“Indications showed there were no concerns about the property,” Marks said.

But Jackson said the study did not evaluate the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the chemicals found at the Aquadome property, and that he is concerned that other chemicals were also omitted from the study.

“We’re rushing this and pushing forward without any deliberation,” Jackson said.

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bayne.hughes@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.

(3) comments

Chuck Johns

Can you just envision Pepper waddling to Chik-Fil-A ?

[beam][beam][beam]

Charlie Specoli

The hearing last week seeking input from citizens as I said then was nothing more than a Decatur city government "dog and pony show.." It is very obvious that this site has been on the fast track for sometime, and discussed by the mayor and council members who support this project only. The city government with this project just like Point Mallard is becoming more involved in recreation business, making money rather than providing solely for it's citizens. The Mayor has wanted a facility like this since he ran for mayor the first time, all he and those that approved this project can see is dollar signs, and I do not think that is what government should be doing, that is making money from expensive recreation projects. To the councilman that said that this recreation project will be "centrally" located, since when did the north side of the city become the central part of the city? It just goes to show that politicians will say anything to justify what they want, and not what the city needs.

Chuck Johns

It's centrally located to the lawyers and government. That's all that matters to them. Makes them feel powerful, and what matters to them is power. They're not smart enough to realize they are not the power.

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