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February 26, 2013

Splash Pad funds OK’d, but veterans center takes detour

ATHENS — It was a night of celebration for supporters of the ongoing effort to bring a splash park to Athens.

Not so much for developers who are hoping to build a veterans rehabilitation center at the site of the old Henderson County hospital.

The Athens City Council on Monday approved a pair of requests to propel the proposed Splash Pad at Kiwanis Park closer to its fund-raising goal of $200,000 — which is the total cost of the project. The city approved a $20,000 grant from the Athens Economic Devel-opment Corporation and signed off on $14,596 more that represents in-kind contributions of city equipment, labor and estimated water usage.

After Monday night, funds raised for the Kiwanis Park Splash Pad are at about $140,000. Splash Pad organizers later said if they can raise $30,000 in the next five days, ground can be broken immediately and the park can be opened by August.

While that project is moving forward, the planned Athens Training and Veterans Rehabilitation Center at 405 Lindsey Street took a step back when the council voted unanimously to send a zoning request back to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

That move will essentially start the zoning process over.

Various representatives of the proposed center, including Babit LLC owner Kevin Hambrick — who is spearheading the project — came before the council to request a zoning change for the site from “office” to “multi-family residential.”

Hambrick said the center — which could cost between $6 million to $8 million to build — could house up to 300 veterans of wars dating back to the Korean Conflict. While there, veterans would be given shelter while being trained job skills to re-enter the workforce after their service.

“We feel this would drastically improve the neighborhood,” said Ron Boone, owner of Boone and Boone Construction of Tyler. Boone said 180 jobs would be created by the center, and that it would have a “multiplying effect” on the Athens economy.

While many recommendations from the Planning and Zoning Commission are rubber-stamped, some members of the council — in addition to several nearby residents and business owners — expressed concern about issues including how the facility is being classified, parking and safety.

Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught told the council he is excited about the project, but that he would recommend the site be zoned only for specific use, rather than the multi-family designation — which would leave the site open for various types of construction projects should the veterans center plan fall through.

If the P&Z Commission were to recommend a specific-use permit only, letters to nearby residences and businesses could then be re-issued to inform the community.

City Administrator Pam Burton said those residents and business owners might be under the impression that the old hospital site will be used as an assisted living facility based on previous information they’ve received. Babit LLC’s zoning request was for an “assisted living facility.”

However, Hambrick admitted Monday night the center will not be a healthcare or assisted living facility. It will be staffed with physician’s assistants and registered nurses, for example, but not by doctors. He later agreed with Burton’s assessment that the center will serve as “transitional housing for veterans who are between homes.” Hambrick said an earlier conversation with Burton, when he said the center would house homeless veterans, was overstated.

Missy Bason, owner of the Missy’s Professional Hair Care on Linsdey Street, asked developers how they could guarantee the veterans living at the facility won’t be dangerous or mentally unstable. Jim Clark, a Tyler architect involved in the project, said there will be an abundance of lighting and security cameras around the facility.

Despite the complications, councilmember Elaine Jenkins said she hopes the city can find a way to make the veterans center a reality.

“These are people who fought for us,” she said. “If we can get the zoning right, this is something that is needed in this community.”

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