Cost of Decatur's many planned capital projects tough to estimate

·6 min read

Jul. 3—The Decatur City Council is planning numerous major capital projects, but inflation has made estimating their cost and determining how they will be funded problematic.

Of the major projects, only the downtown parking deck is beyond the planning stage. Construction of the other projects is not expected to begin until at least spring 2023. The council is planning to spend from a number of additional funding sources, including a $20 million bond issue, American Rescue Plan Act funds and a legal settlement with 3M Co.

Projects that have been proposed, in addition to the parking deck, include the Sixth Avenue streetscape, a new farmers market, a new recreation center, a softball complex, renovation of an ice rink and replacement or renovation of the Carrie Matthews Recreation Center.

Mayor Tab Bowling said the number of projects the city has coming "in the next three years hasn't been seen since Mayor (Gilmer) Blackburn." Under Blackburn, who was mayor from 1962 to 1968, the city built Point Mallard Park, two recreation centers and Decatur City Hall.

However, Councilmen Kyle Pike and Carlton McMasters said price increases are making it hard to estimate the cost of the projects.

"The trend for everything is to have cost overruns," McMasters said. "First, we have to nail down the costs, but that's hard to do when we're a year out on most of the projects."

With the news last week that the price tag on the Sixth Avenue streetscape project is up to $10 million, only three projects would now be funded out of the $20 million bond the City Council floated in December.

Along with the Sixth Avenue streetscape is the parking deck, which is estimated to cost $6 million. This leaves enough bond money to contribute about $1 million toward the new Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market that's planned, Bowling said.

Council President Jacob Ladner said that "$8 million to $10 million was in our heads" for the Sixth Avenue project when they approved the bond issue even though it's significantly more than early estimates.

The original estimate was $5 million to $6 million and then it rose to roughly $8 million as the consultant, Volkert Inc., began working on the plan to beautify the northern end of Sixth Avenue in Decatur.

Bowling said the city "may be able to value-engineer" the project and find some savings that would reduce the cost to about $9 million.

The project encompasses a 1-mile area of Sixth Avenue between Prospect Drive Southeast and the Tennessee River bridges. It would add wider walkways, turn portions of the turn lane into medians with flower beds and block some roads from turning left onto Sixth Avenue.

The city will find out the exact cost of the parking deck, to be built at First Avenue Southeast and East Moulton Street, at the July 14 bid opening.

"I don't expect the cost to change much because most of it is pre-fab concrete," Bowling said. "The only thing that could possibly increase is the elevators."

The parking deck is being built in conjunction with a new hotel next door at Second Avenue Southeast and East Moulton Street. Bowling did make some proposals to offset the parking deck's cost, including charging for on-street parking downtown.

McMasters said it's prudent to leave any leftover bond money unearmarked until they see the final costs on the Sixth Avenue streetscape and parking deck.

Councilman Billy Jackson, who voted against issuing the bond, on Friday said he remains frustrated because, especially after windfalls that included federal COVID relief funds and the 3M settlement, "we shouldn't burden our citizens with long-term debt rates unless it's absolutely necessary."

"We have pressing projects such as roads, drainage, Carrie Matthews and equipment needs, but we had the money for such projects without borrowing," Jackson said. "We simply have to be more conservative with our spending." — Farmers market

The plan to replace the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market with a new facility in the same location on First Avenue Southeast has been in the works for some time.

In addition to Decatur's contribution for the new market, money is coming from the state with Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, getting $1.5 million, including $500,000 this year. The Morgan County Commission is contributing $500,000.

Orr said the state Products Mart board will likely contribute, too. The local Farmers Market Board also has money it saved for the project.

Orr said last week that he expects work to begin in 2023 and that the farmers market will be closed for next year's growing season unless they find an alternate location.

The other two projects discussed as possibilities were Carrie Matthews Recreation Center, which would be replaced with a new center or renovated, and a renovation of the Point Mallard Ice Complex.

The council hasn't made a final decision on whether to renovate or to replace Carrie Matthews, which has foundation issues due to bad dirt, in Northwest Decatur. There is $1.5 million in the city's reserve that's allocated to either renovation or replacement, but both choices will cost significantly more than the allocation.

A decision also hasn't been made on the Point Mallard Ice Complex, which had to be shut down because of ice rink problems. The city recently found out the building has more problems than previously understood, so this will likely be the project that drops out of the picture, McMasters said. — Upcoming vote

The city received $42 million from a legal settlement with 3M Co. over the dumping of chemical contaminants to replace the Aquadome and its ballfields.

Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester asked the council last week to vote on allocating $35 million to a new recreation center at Wilson Morgan Park and $6.8 million to a softball ballpark off Modaus Road Southwest.

Demeester said council approval would allow the city to start spending the money, and Bowling said the first expense will be buying 34.2 acres for the ballfield complex from Neal Holland for a proposed $1.26 million.

Ladner asked City Attorney Herman Marks if they could spend any 3M settlement money not used on the two projects on other projects, and Marks said it could be spent on recreation projects.

If there's any leftover money from the 3M settlement, Bowling said, it could be spent on the Carrie Matthews project. However, Carrie Matthews will likely come out of the unassigned balance, he said.

The City Council will use the $10.88 million in federal funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act to improve three roads in growing areas, upgrade a park in a low-income area and help create a mental health unit.

The plan for the federal COVID-19 relief funds features the widening of Modaus Road Southwest, revamping two Upper River Road intersections, enhancing Pines Park and giving $600,000 to the Mental Health Center of North-Central Alabama as the city's contribution to a planned 16-bed mental illness residential crisis unit at the site of the former Alabama state trooper building on U.S. 31 South in Decatur. or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.