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‘Phoenix Group’ hopes to breathe life into Florence gymnasium

News editor

It’s hosted flea markets, art fairs, roller skating, and a haunted house. It’s home to a few annual Florence events. It’s had broken pipes, a leaky roof, and a warped floor. It even got a recreation director terminated over scheduling conflicts.

The gymnasium in Florence has been a building in search of a purpose since the city purchased it in 2008 and Marion County Special Education Cooperative moved out in 2009.

A new group of volunteers has come together to fix the roof, repair the floor, and more importantly, develop a vision and plan to make the building an integral part of Florence’s future.

Spokesman Bob Gayle faced a much smaller group Thursday than the 40 who attended a 2010 town hall meeting about the gym. Just nine people came to the city building to listen to Gayle and offer opinions.

Gayle said the latest volunteer effort is serious, to the point of officially organizing in order to contract with the city to, in essence, maintain and manage the gym and recruit business for it.

“The group is called the Phoenix Group,” Gayle said. “We feel like it’s an apt name, out of ashes and back to life again. Hopefully, we can pick this building back up.”

The idea for the group, Gayle said, came from a conversation with city council member Randy Mills, in which they discussed the possibility of the city fronting material costs while a volunteer group provided the labor.

That arrangement has already borne fruit, even though a formal contract has yet to be signed. Volunteers fixed a leak in the roof, and the city paid for replacement boards from an old gym near Wichita. Gayle said he has volunteers and equipment lined up to repair the damaged floor section.

Once the building is fixed, Gayle said the Phoenix Group will manage maintenance and marketing of the facility.

“Somebody needs to be in charge of the building, keeping an eye on it, schedule events, and get lease and rental agreements on it,” Gayle said. Long-standing events and community groups would have first consideration to use the building for free, or for a minimal fee. New events and outside vendors would be charged.

“Any other events we could bring in would pay a daily fee to rent the building,” Gayle said. “That money would go directly to the city.”

The group will try to recruit businesses to rent the lower floor of the facility.

“Ideally we’d like to have enough to pay for the $6,000 yearly insurance on the building,” Gayle said. “We don’t see materials being a big cost ongoing, but there’s still going to be some from time to time. If the building could get to be more self-sufficient, it would be wonderful.”

While the Phoenix Group would recruit potential users, Gayle said the city council would approve use requests.

Recalling the former recreation director, council member Trayce Warner wanted assurance responsibilities would be well-defined.

“She started telling us what we were going to do,” Warner said. “So it needs to be clear right from the get go that it’s all up front, there’s no fine print, there’s no hidden clauses, it’s all in the open.”

“I don’t like fine print, and I don’t expect anybody else to like it, either,” Gayle said.

The city doesn’t have the resources to hold on to the building if it doesn’t generate more revenue, Mills said.

“This is the last best thing we’re going to do with that building,” Mills said. “Otherwise, the city can’t afford to keep it. I don’t know what else we can do. People have to get behind this project, period.”

“If we lose it, we’ll never get another,” Gayle said.

Last modified Feb. 12, 2015

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