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Mount Airy's Town Council will decide next month whether to spend up to $55,000 on a study to determine the potential of three locations to become the home of a community center.

The Mount Airy Community Center Task Force has recommended the Town Council approve a feasibility study to evaluate three buildings it has identified as possible locations for a community center and the associated costs.

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Dick Swanson, chairman of both the town's Water and Sewer Commission and its Ethics Commission, said before the Town Council makes any decision concerning the feasibility study, it should first identify capital project needs and prioritize them.

Swanson said his recommendation is based in part on a series of presentations that Councilman Chris Everich has given regarding the town's reserve fund, which is roughly $13 million, and what it should be used for. During these presentations, Everich has said the council needs to determine what projects to fund, the order in which they should be completed and how the projects are related.

"If the town is committed to doing the community center and wants to finance it, sure go ahead, but don't make the decision in a vacuum," Swanson said.

During the council's meeting Jan. 5, Swanson identified several capital projects that need to be addressed. These include the extension of Center Street to connect to Md. 27, the repair of the flat-iron building, road work on Park Avenue, the development of a local police force, identifying and utilizing additional water sources for development, and land acquisitions to complete the Rails to Trails project.

Swanson said these other projects, particularly finding additional water sources, would put infrastructure in place that would enable the town to move forward with the community center project.

Mayor Pat Rockinberg said though he respects Swanson and believes he is a valuable member of the town's volunteer staff, he does not agree with his assessment.

It is not the town's responsibility to supply new developments with water, Rockinberg said. That is not something the town is required to do and should not be a burden on its taxpayers, he said.

In the most recent survey conducted in 2008, increasing the number of developments in town was not a priority of residents, so identifying water sources — even if it was the responsibility of the town — would not be included in the list of capital project needs.

The extension of Center Street has never been in Mount Airy's capital budget plan and never will be, Rockinberg said. Those type of projects are generally done by independent developers or property owners, and don't have to cost taxpayer money, he said.

Rockinberg's interest in creating a community center began more than five years ago when he opened the first teen center in town. The response from the teen population was overwhelming, he said. Before his forming the Community Center Task Force in November 2013, a grass roots movement had begun in town to develop a community center, and he thought it needed to be formalized.

Amethyst Tymoch, the chairwoman of the Community Center Task Force, said when the task force was formed, members were tasked specifically with identifying the needs of the community and how best to meet those needs.

Based on surveys conducted in 2000 and 2008 — and even as far back as 1945 — the No. 1 priority of residents in Mount Airy has been the creation of a community center, Tymoch said.

There is a lot of misinformation about the community center and the feasibility study, however. The scope of the community center and its cost to the town grew beyond what the task force was capable of handling on its own, Tymoch said.

This is why the task force requested approval to move forward with a feasibility study, she said. She stressed that the study could cost up to $55,000 but potentially could be less.

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Rockinberg said feasibility studies are routinely conducted by both municipal and county governments. In the past, they had spent $50,000 on a feasibility study concerning the flat-iron building and the cost to renovate it.

The flat-iron building, on Park Avenue in downtown Mount Airy, was constructed in the 1890s. It houses Maryland State Police troopers and acts as the municipality's museum.

"Engineering and evaluation studies cost money, but you get something out of it," Rockinberg said. "This is not an uncommon practice."

During its meeting Jan. 5, the council chose to hold until February's meeting on voting to approve the study because two of its five members were not present.

Councilman Ken Phebus said this was the correct course of action.

"The point I wanted to make is when we spend money, I feel it's in the best interest of the town for the whole council to be there," Phebus said.

He also said though the community center is of high priority, he wants to make sure that existing buildings that need renovations are taken care of before a community center study is conducted.

Rockinberg disagreed and said this was not the study to be cautious about. In prior meetings, he said, the other members of the council had shown support for the study.

"It was a good idea to bring the study up for discussion to get feedback from the public, but none of Swanson's other priorities have enough merit not to move forward," Rockinberg said.

If the study is approved in February, a request for proposal will be released and the town will follow the open-bidding process.

"Hopefully this will be rectified at the next meeting," Rockinberg said. "For us to keep punting the ball down the road is ridiculous."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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