Galesburg selects Churchill for community center. Here's what's next

A community open house was held at Churchill Junior High on Thursday, May 19, 2022.
A community open house was held at Churchill Junior High on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

GALESBURG — Galesburg City Council decided Monday that Churchill Junior High will be the location of its proposed community center.

Council members Kevin Wallace, Dwight White, Jaclyn Smith-Esters and Sarah Davis voted in favor of selecting Churchill as the site of the project. Council members Bradley Hix, Wayne Dennis and Larry Cox voted against it.

Now that Churchill has been officially selected, city staff will work with the Farnsworth Group, a Peoria-based engineering and architecture firm, to finalize designs for how the space will be developed and prepare bid documents that will be brought to City Council for approval at a future meeting.

Supporting city documents on the vote stated that due to “the desire to maintain reserves, the City should consider a quarter cent sales tax increase to support the Community Center and infrastructure improvements throughout the City as identified through the survey.”

As the ordinance that would increase the city’s sales tax by 0.25% was on a first reading, the council did not vote on it Monday evening but will likely vote on it during their next meeting on Dec. 20.

Cox brought up that the community center’s estimated annual operating costs — which Parks and Recreation director Elizabeth Varner put at $587,000 — is based on speculation because the city has not yet established what exact programming will be inside the community center.

Hix argued that “we really don’t have a plan” for the community center and motioned to table the vote on selecting Churchill in order to get more info on what the project will cost. Hix said he was wary of the debt the city would incur if it sells bonds to help fund the project.

“What's the hurry? Why don't we listen to some of the smartest people in this community who said they're not necessarily against it but they just want more meat on the bones?” Hix asked, referencing members of the audience who spoke during the meeting’s public comment section.

The vote to table the selection of Churchill failed 4-3 with council members Wallace, White, Smith-Esters and Davis voting against tabling it. Council members Hix, Dennis and Cox voted for tabling the item.

White said he does not want to put the city in debt but questioned why council members don’t express the same concern in taking on debt to afford expensive city infrastructure improvements.

"I understand the concern about everybody wanting to make sure that we know where every dime is going to go, but we spent almost a year, I do believe, just hashing out that we want to do this or we don't,” White said. “So we haven't had an opportunity to make decisions on what's going to be in the building.”

Smith-Esters echoed that the council was only voting on the location of the community center that evening.

“I think we've all decided that Churchill is the location to go. Many times we've talked about it, we've hashed it out. If we keep tabling it and going, ‘Where's another location?’ we're just never going to get it done, ever,” Smith-Esters said. “It's going to cost money, period. And we're going to find out how we're going to do it, how we're going to afford it.”

Mayor Peter Schwartzman confirmed that the council has been discussing Churchill as the potential site of a community center since at least Nov. 2, 2021.

Schwartzman also noted that the city estimated a year ago the community center’s annual operating costs would be closer to $200,000 once revenue streams are factored in, though that difference will very likely change after the city determines what programming will be included in the community center.

Schwartzman later said the city will hold a public discussion in January on what should be offered inside the proposed community center.

The city acquired Churchill from Education District 205 in May. The former middle school was one of four locations the Farnsworth Group studied for the potential of developing into a community center.

The Farnsworth Group presented their study to the council in September, which estimated that renovating Churchill into a community center would cost $6 million. City documents increased that estimate, stating the renovations will likely cost $7.35 million.

This article originally appeared on Galesburg Register-Mail: Galesburg narrowly picks old middle school for future community center