Last month, the Niceville City Council made a commitment to fund $175,000 of a proposed project to remodel and renew the Niceville High School baseball press box and bleachers. However, at this month’s city council meeting, the Niceville City Attorney announced that this money would no longer be provided for the project.
The decision by the city attorney took place just a day after the Okaloosa County School District voted to accept the project on a ‘self-help’ basis – meaning no school district funds would be used on the project.
Last August, Bryan Gates approached the Niceville City Council with an idea – use Okaloosa County Tourism Development Tax money – raised from levies placed on hotel stays – to rebuild the Niceville High School Bleachers and press box – at a cost of $300,000.
At December’s meeting – the council passed a measure to give the project the money – so long as the venture got the city attorney’s blessing and the group, led by Gates, was able to raise the rest. The vote wasn’t unanimous – Councilman Sal Nodjomian fought vociferously against giving the project money – citing concerns the city did not have an equitable way to determine which projects received limited tourism development dollars from the city – and which didn’t.
After researching the issue, City Attorney Dixie Dan Powell, told the council the city charter prohibits the allocation of more than $100,000 by a vote of the council. The only time that rule doesn’t apply is during the annual budgeting process. Additionally, Powell argued the project was not technically a tourism project because the city doesn’t have data to prove baseball tournaments at the stadium bring more people into town yearly.
Ultimately, Powell would say the project was “in a grey area” and that it might or might not stand up to scrutiny from the Tourism Development Council (TDC) – which would have to approve the project. Niceville City employee in charge of grants, Amy Hansen, added that she believed the chances were dim because of the goals of the TDC. “They want to make sure that whatever projects they fund truly bring tourism dollars [into the area], because that’s what they’re for. They’re not looking for people to come in the summer, because we already get that. So, they are looking to find projects that will benefit our area in the offseason.”
Mid Bay News reached out to Gates, who was travelling for business and was not at the meeting to ask him for comment about the decision. Gates said he had not yet been contacted by anyone at the city. “Needless to say, I am disappointed and need to find out what happened,” Gates said via email.
Councilman Sal Nodjomian seized on the opportunity to renew his calls for a formal grant process to be put in place for the disbursement of tourism taxes or any other money from the city. Nodjominan proposed the following:
“This is not unusual for a grant process,” Nodjomian added, “the Triumph Gulf Coast process requires exactly the same thing, as do many other federal agencies.”
Despite the negation of the council’s last vote on the baseball project – it does not necessarily mean the end of the struggle to upgrade the bleachers. The Council did vote unanimously to create a grant process. The standard bearers for the project could apply once the process is in place. Both Hansen and Nodjomian were optimistic the process could copy a framework like the one recently created by Okaloosa County to give away American Rescue Plan Act money and be put into service relatively quickly.
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