Recently, the Fort Mill school district invited the two respondents to its request for proposal for an aquatic center to present their plans at a school board meeting. Initially, those pitches – from the town of Fort Mill in partnership the Upper Palmetto YMCA, and Game On Development – were going to be done behind closed doors in an executive session.
A few days before the meeting, however, the board decided to cancel the RFP and open the meeting to allow the public to hear some details. That was a wise move because even though the school board is within its rights to choose who is going to build and/or run the district’s pool without the public’s input, it’s always best to do the public’s business openly.
It also may be the only opportunity the public will have had to learn any of the details.
The district insists that state procurement rules gives those who respond to an RFP the discretion to decide what details, if any at all, to release from the plan. We’re not sure we agree and neither the town/YMCA nor Game On responded to our requests to see their proposals; The school district, citing procurement protocol, denied our Freedom of Information request for the documents.
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And despite the fact that the RFP was ultimately canceled while the district decides if it wants to publish a new one, at least the school district did give the public a chance to hear about them. District leaders should be commended for ultimately making the right choice.
Why is this important when neither plan could be formally accepted at the moment? The answer is that now we all know the substance of both plans. In short, Game On, which is building a mega sports complex, along with hotels, apartments and shops on more than 78 acres in Tega Cay, would essentially give the district priority use of the competition-size pool it’s planning to build anyway. In return, the district, which was authorized in a 2015 referendum to spend up to $9.9 million to build an aquatic center, would presumably be asked to help pay for construction of Game On’s facility.
The competing plan involves the town buying the Leroy Springs & Co.-owned recreation complex where the district’s swim teams now practice and compete and run it in partnership with the Upper Palmetto YMCA. As with Game On, this plan would have the district use that bond money voters approved last year to help refurbish the complex, which where told needs a new HVAC system, among other upgrades tied to aging.
That’s the plan we favor and it’s not even close.
For starters, this is probably the last real opportunity anyone will have to keep the complex open and preserve the playing fields and tennis courts on its surrounding grounds. It’s a good bet that if it is not acquired by the town or some other like-minded entity, the property will be slated for some type of commercial redevelopment sometime after the town’s lease for the complex ends in 2020. Considering the growing town’s continuous need for recreation space, particularly playing fields, that land is an even more precious commodity to the public sector than it would be for a commercial developer.
We also like the feeling of security that comes with partnering with another public entity. We wish Game On all the success in the world and look forward to seeing its Tega Cay plan come to fruition, but what would happen if we experience another economic downturn like the deep recession that took hold in 2008? There’s no assurance a private, for-profit company would be be able to stay in business – or even if it would want to.
Keeping open the complex, which is one of the access points to the Anne Springs Close Greenway, is also important to its many members, including the residents within walking and biking distance. There’s no nearby alternative in their neighborhoods. For decades it has become part of the fabric of life in Fort Mill and the town would lose a little piece of its soul if it goes away.
Last but not least, it solves the district’s problem of providing a pool for the Fort Mill and Nation Ford high school swim teams without much having to change. It’s a win-win. We know the public thinks so, too.
Whatever machinations the district now must go through, whether it involves another RFP or not, it should get moving. We can’t imagine there’s a better idea that benefits the entire community. Making this happen should be among the district’s top priorities by the end of this year.