Jackson County

Ocean Springs spent $285,000 for a gym that was never built

This is what FEMA awarded Ocean Springs — a $3.4 million grant to build a multi-purpose gym. But in the end, the Board of Aldermen decided the city couldn’t afford to take it on.
This is what FEMA awarded Ocean Springs — a $3.4 million grant to build a multi-purpose gym. But in the end, the Board of Aldermen decided the city couldn’t afford to take it on.

Mayor Connie Moran called it more than hurt feelings. She called it “a travesty for the city ... the worst fiscal decision ever made by the Board of Aldermen.”

And she sent the Sun Herald pictures this week of “the $3.4 million facility that we gave up.”

It was a multi-plex gym and storm shelter that FEMA would have built three years ago. It would have had more room than the Civic Center for events. Moran and city planners worked on it for several years before that. Such a building was part of the city’s 25-year sports plan. Aldermen supported it at first by approving money for a design.

Projects like that are like pregnant cats. Once you build them, you have to keep feeding them.

Alderman Greg Denyer, on adding a multi-purpose gym to the city

Even though the city spent $285,000 on the plans, in the end, the Board of Aldermen voted not to go forward with it and return the money to FEMA, which meant the city was not reimbursed for the plans.

The project would have required the city to match $35,000 for fittings, according to the Planning Department, and spend roughly $150,000 in additional costs that included insurance and an employee.

Moran said the city still hired another parks and recreation employee even though the gym was never built.

Gulfport Seabees use their skills to help Bobby Cox and others volunteers to turn the old city-owned Armory on Pine Street into a children's gym for basketball, volleyball and events on a shoe-string budget.

She calls that short-sighted. She is still flabbergasted by the small amount of commitment FEMA was requiring from the city. Alderman Greg Denyer, however, said this week that the city’s reserve funds were low three or four years ago and aldermen didn’t want to pay for a new project, even if the cost to the city was low.

The issue came up again this week, when aldermen accused Moran of bad-mouthing a smaller gym project that did happen. Alderman-at-Large Bobby Cox pulled together a renovation of the old Armory by raising money from the community, coordinating volunteers (including Seabees), using city employees and his own manpower. He renovated it into a practice and children’s gym.

Moran compared the two projects, saying if aldermen had worked with her, “We could have had a state-of-the-art gym and what we got instead was an undersized 65-year-old practice gym.”

Cox stood up at the end of the Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday and said Moran embarrassed the city by what she said to the volunteers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Armory gym. Two other aldermen walked out. And Thursday night, Moran said she apologized “if the comments she made privately at the ribbon-cutting were taken out of context.”

Aldermen wanted to know why the Sun Herald didn’t write the exact derogatory word she used to describe the smaller gym project. Cox said he learned what she said secondhand in a text from a volunteer.

Denyer talked with the Sun Herald this week.

He said the real issue was the mayor making unprofessional remarks to a volunteer at a ribbon-cutting.

“There are witnesses willing to testify to that,” he said. “All she wants to do is talk about something four years ago that we couldn’t afford.”

He said he believed it would have cost the city a minimum of $150,000, and it had to be staffed. He believed it would have taken up a ballfield at Gay Lemon Park, though Moran said that was not the case.

“It just didn’t work out,” he said. “We didn’t have the money or the money to staff it.

“Four years ago is when the city was in a guarded financial situation. We couldn’t afford for that to come out of pocket. That’s some of the tough decisions we have to make.

“Projects like that are like pregnant cats. Once you build them, you have to keep feeding them. We were stretched to the limit. At some point in time, we decided we didn’t want to add something else. We all wanted a building like that, but we had to police it and provide other staffing to support it.”

He said that in subsequent years, the city has put money back into its depleted reserve funds. He said the city was supposed to keep $1.5 million in reserves to keep a good bond rating and it is back to $700,000 or $800,000.

“Aldermen would have like to have had the multi-purpose center. It would have been a hurricane shelter, expensive to build,” Denyer said.

“We invested in plans. That’s how serious we were about that. It was a nice building and (architect) Bruce (Tolar) did a good job on it. I don’t think there was a member of the board at that time that wouldn’t have liked to have continued that project.

“We took drastic steps and saved money instead.”

Denyer said he thinks the failed storm shelter and gym was her way of diverting attention from her remarks at the ribbon-cutting.

“I think she made a mistake and she needed to fess up,” he said. “We all make mistakes.”

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