Opinion: Play ball at Embassy Square

Much of the talk around Henderson about fund balances, budget amendments and capital improvement projects is actually about one thing: Embassy Square. So in the interest of full disclosure, we feel it’s time to share how we see the project at HomeinHenderson.

We’ve noticed a tendency toward an all-or-nothing attitude on Embassy Square. Either you think it’s God’s gift to Henderson, or you think it’s Satan’s greatest plot to pull the good people of Vance County into hell. (Views on the Embassy project’s driving force, Sam Watkins, seem to go to similar extremes of holiness or evil.)

We think either extreme is wrong, as extreme views tend to be. The Embassy project should be judged on its individual parts, not as a whole, so let’s look at it from that perspective.

First, as City Manager Eric Williams noted during his presentation at the public forum Feb. 28, we have to remember that Embassy Square has two distinct halves, divided physically by Breckenridge Street and philosophically by funding and purpose.

Let’s take the north side first. That’s the civic side, the (openly) publicly financed side, the side that now consists of a police station and lots of parking but is meant to be the center of the municipal government, with a city hall and administrative building joining the police station.

The city definitely needed a new police station. The old one on Young Street, dating to 1928, wasn’t fit for habitation by man or beast. We can’t help wondering whether, somehow, the old armory could have been renovated, retrofitted and upgraded to serve as a police station, preserving that Henderson landmark while meeting the Police Department’s needs and creating a municipal public safety center with the Central Fire Station next door. But aside from that long shot, an Embassy Square police station was the right answer.

We will always believe that the station is bigger than necessary and that Henderson would be better off if some of the money going toward debt service and operational expenses were instead helping pay more officers more money. Still, we have a fine police center we won’t outgrow, and that’s a good thing.

The real question on the civic side of things is whether to push ahead with the city hall and administrative building. Our answer is no.

We can’t afford to go further into debt to build facilities that aren’t necessities. The Municipal Building on Beckford Drive isn’t luxurious, and the council chambers aren’t big enough if people continue to insist on getting involved and getting informed about what their elected officials are doing. But the building gets the job done, it’s convenient to the Operations & Service Center down the road, and even if it needs extensive renovations in the next decade, it will be cheaper than two new buildings.

On the south side of Breckenridge, where the Embassy Square Foundation aims to spend donations to lift Henderson to new cultural heights, the story parallels the situation on the north side.

There’s no question we need a new library. The current H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library on Rose Avenue is an old grocery store, and it’s an embarrassment — not because of the staff or the programs or the collections or the efforts of the Friends of the Perry Library, but because of a lack of space.

We appreciate the Embassy foundation’s recognition of this community need and its seizing of the initiative to raise the necessary money. Without the foundation, we suspect that a larger library with an expanded bank of Internet-connected computers would still be years from reality.

As with the police station, we can quibble about details of the plans. Is 40,000 square feet the right size? Is the focus on the latest technology driving up costs and distracting from the core mission of the library as a place for information? Is the associated gallery space a wise use of money? Does the building put style over substance?

We also have serious financial questions, starting with how much of the $8 million building will actually be financed with private donations and ending with how we will pay for the dramatically increased operational costs.

While those questions are important, and the financial ones must be answered, now is the time to look ahead and confront the biggest question of all on the cultural side: Do we push ahead with the 1,000-seat theater?

In four years of asking that question in various forms, we have yet to receive a convincing answer from the Embassy folks. We don’t see the unmet demand for a performing-arts space. We don’t see the powerful desire for the kinds of outside performances that are big enough, but not too big, for the theater. We don’t buy the idea that the theater will open people’s eyes to the wonders of the world (the North Carolina Symphony, for example, already treats Vance schoolchildren to local performances). We don’t believe for one second that the theater would enhance economic development, not while we have so many issues with housing and education. And we don’t see how the numbers can add up to make the theater pay for itself, meaning its operating costs would be a further drain on city and county coffers.

In short, we should pull the plug on the performing-arts center. That decision wouldn’t reflect a lack of vision but an overdue acceptance of reality.

Of course, if the people who make decisions in Henderson show the uncommon good sense to listen to us about both sides of Embassy Square, the city will be left owning a lot of valuable, graded, vacant land downtown. That would create a whole new set of questions.

One possibility would be to sell the land to private investors and use the proceeds to rebuild the general fund balance, but we doubt there would be a strong demand for the property until the local economy started thriving.

Another option would be to work out a deal with the county and the school system to put the proposed third middle school on Embassy Square, at the corner of Montgomery and Chestnut streets. The proximity to Henderson Middle School would allow some beneficial sharing of athletic facilities, though it’s probably better to spread the schools out a bit.

Our ideal solution would be recreational.

The Aycock Recreation Complex is wonderful but is out of reach for too many children during the crucial after-school hours. Embassy Square, as the foundation points out, is “within walking distance of two middle schools and the largest concentration of low-income families in Vance County.” What better location could there be for recreational facilities?

We envision a partnership among the city, county and school system to build a basic gym, with quality locker rooms and fold-out bleachers, on the south side of Embassy Square and a soccer field or two on the north side.

The gym would serve as a replacement for the decrepit facility at Henderson Middle School, and when the school didn’t need it, it would provide two indoor basketball courts for the community, particularly in the afternoons, on weekends and on school holidays. Those are the times when too many teenagers are getting into trouble for lack of anything else to do. The soccer field would ensure some green space downtown and would be a place where kids could play and practice soccer or football any time.

Such a recreational complex would require a capital investment, and we might have to wait five years to think about committing the money. Maybe there are even better uses we can make of the Embassy land. But the time is now for the community as a whole to discuss what to do with this public resource, without preference for the existing plans for facilities we simply do not need.

That is where we at HomeinHenderson stand on Embassy Square. We will always strive to keep our opinions and biases out of our reporting on the Embassy project and all other news. Just to be sure, we want you to know our opinion so you can be on the lookout for any slips on our part. We can all agree that Embassy Square is too important to make decisions based on slanted information.