By Walker County News Today staff
The Huntsville City Council on Tuesday approved the use of $140,000 in Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds for engineering design of the Sam Houston Statue Visitor Center Expansion and Renovation Project.
HOT funds are derived from a 7 percent surcharge paid by guests who stay in local hotels, motels and bed and breakfast establishments. HOT funds are not derived from property and sales taxes paid by Huntsville citizens.
Council also authorized the City Manager Matt Benoit to enter into a contract with PGAL Architects of Houston for these services and to provide additional services during the construction phase if the Council authorizes that at a later date. If fully authorized, the total project cost is an estimated $1.86 million, council said.
PGAL previously performed a Facility Needs Assessment for this project. Council approved the plan at this meeting.
PGAL recommends that an additional 4,268 square feet be added to the Visitor Center’s existing 5,000 square feet in a separate attached building. The new building will provide educational space, a catering kitchen, staff offices, and room to accommodate visiting groups.
Kimm Thomas, the city’s director of Tourism and Cultural Services, told the Council that the current Visitor Center is no longer adequate to meet the needs of these visiting groups.
“The current building was not originally designed to accommodate groups, only people coming and going. Since that time we have evolved to having groups there, sometimes two or three a day. And you don’t always know when they’re coming. Last year we had 49 scheduled groups, but we also had 283 non-scheduled groups. We get groups out there at the drop of a dime.”
She also said the Visitor Center needs additional space to accommodate groups of up to 150 people. City employees work in cramped conditions, sharing work space with storage space while also trying to greet and assist an ever-increasing number of visitors. In 2015, an 74,000 people visited statue and center, an increase of 7,000, Thomas said.
Before the vote, mayor pro tem Keith Olson emphasized that funds for the project were not coming from property or sales taxes but a “pass-through” tax collected from overnight visitors to the city.
Council voted 6-1 to proceed with the contract. Ward 3 council member Ronnie Allen voted against the measure. Ward 2 council member Tish Humphrey was absent from the vote.
“I’m not voting for this tonight because I don’t think the Long Range Planning Committee handled this properly,” Allen said. “Even though I would have most likely voted for the remodel, since they are lumped together as one project (remodel and expansion), I’m going to vote No. I’m also uncomfortable with the architect chosen for this project.”
Council voted to approve the 2016 Strategic Plan and to amend the plan to require that council review all recommendations by the Long Range Planning Committee in a workshop before the committee presents them for a vote in a formal meeting.
Council also agreed that the workshop and the formal vote would not occur on the same day.
Allen questioned why council intended to discuss in private City Charter Paragraph 11.17, requiring council to get voter approval before accruing new debt greater that two-tenths of 1 percent of the current assessed value of all taxable properties in the city. No one on council provided an answer. Allen’s motion to hold discussion of the city’s charter in public failed for lack of a second.
Council approved all items without discussion. .