As Harley Noland walks through the 97-year-old armory on Front Street in Marietta, he sees past the paint peeling from the walls and the rotted floor boards and envisions where a wedding reception might be held, where folks might wait on a bus to pick them up and where tourists might stop to get information.
He also sees the finish line to a decades-long renovation in sight.
"It has been an amazing process but it is all coming to fruition now, so I am very hopeful by this time next year, we'll see a nearly complete project," Noland said.
ASHLEY RITTENHOUSE The Marietta Times
Marietta City Council member Harley Noland looks over the armory on Front Street in Marietta. After almost 20 years, a renovation project on the building has not yet begun, but legislation authorizing advertisement for construction bids is expected to be introduced during Marietta City Council’s meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the community building at Lookout Park.
Noland, a Democrat who is currently an at-large Marietta City Council member and is running in the November election for that same seat, pointed out that the Armory Square project has been in the works for almost 20 years.
Although some landscaping, parking lot and other exterior upgrades have been completed, major work on the project has yet to begin.
It is a project that has had not only its fair share of delays, but also controversy, as some residents and city officials have criticized the plans, the delays and grant money lost when deadlines expired.
Armory Square funding
(All have been awarded between 2006 and the present):
$446,958; Gutberlet Armory Trust Fund.
$195,000; Transportation Equity Grant.
$149,115; HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) Multi-use Community Center Earmark.
$252,397; Ohio River Scenic Byway Grant.
$461,444; Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant. (expires July 20, 2012)
$565,000; federal historic tax credits (net)
$488,587; state historic tax credits (net)
$323,234; transit stimulus funds.
$126,860; Transportation Equity Grant.
Movables, equipment and furnishings
$200,000; Ohio Capital Bill (Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission).
$99,000; Rural Business Enterprise Grant.
$250,000; Appalachian Regional Commission Grant.
Final total: $3,557,595.
And with the November general election less than two weeks away, those who make up Marietta's government and those who hope to have differing views on when-and if-the renovation will ever be complete.
"I want the pieces to be put together so we can move on - I think everyone is tired of arguing over it," said David White, R-1st Ward. "The grants are in place now, it's got to happen and it's got to happen soon, but I don't want it to happen haphazardly."
The cost of the armory
The armory is the second-oldest National Guard Armory in the state of Ohio and local citizen groups like Friends of the Armory and the Citizens Armory Preservation Society have been working to save it since the late 80s.
According to current estimates, a complete renovation of Armory Square is going to cost about $3.3 million. All of that money has been secured, according to Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen, who says when he came into office in January of 2004, there was no money in the armory fund.
Mullen is running in the November election for a council at-large seat.
"With some very aggressive grant writing and using state and federal historic tax credits that has never been done in this city before, we are now at $3.3 million," Mullen said. "It has taken this many years because we made the pledge from the outset we were going to build this with grants and private funding and knowing the city's general fund is always stressed, it didn't make sense to try to burden the taxpayers of the City of Marietta."
The funding is coming from several different sources, including an Ohio River Scenic Byway Grant and Appalachian Regional Commission Grant. An Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant that has been awarded for the project in the amount of $461,444 has an expiration date of July 20, 2012. That's the only portion of that could expire.
City Development Director Mike Stocky said one allocation of a transportation equity grant, in the amount of $95,179, was already lost because it wasn't used in time.
"I couldn't get the environmental documentation taken care of with the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) in time before the allocation expired," Stocky said.
The business plan
One of the most common concerns voiced about the Armory is that a business plan for it has not yet been firmed up.
But Mullen said the architect's design has always included plans for the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau to be located there, as well as the Washington-Morgan Community Action and Lakefront bus lines.
He said the design also allows for WASCO to have a presence at Armory Square, with its developmentally disabled clients expected to perform cleaning and maintenance work there at no cost to the city.
White said he doesn't think these tenants will be enough to support the armory.
"There's going to be regular maintenance on that building that will cost money," he said. "Just to heat that building will be a phenomenal amount of money."
During a recent lands, buildings and parks committee meeting, a majority of council members agreed to authorize advertisement for construction bids on the project, with legislation approving advertisement for construction bids expected to be introduced during Marietta City Council's meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the community building at Lookout Park.
Councilman Jon Grimm, R-3rd Ward, said he doesn't believe the city should advertise for bids yet because there is not a "firm or viable" business plan in place.
Grimm is running for mayor of the city in the November election against former Marietta mayor Joe Matthews.
"My concern is that we are continuing down a path of bad decisions that has led to the delays we've had on the armory," Grimm said. "We're not going to get accurate bids because we're not exactly sure what we want to do with the building. You could never go to a bank and ask for a loan to do these things without a solid business plan."
Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, announced recently that the CVB will review and update the original business plan that has been developed for Armory Square over the last few years, a process that will take two or three months to complete.
Although the CVB is currently spearheading the project, White said "it appears as though there have been a number of different entities that have been a very important part of doing it" over the years.
Unlike Grimm, Noland said he doesn't believe a firm business plan needs to be in place before the city goes out for bids on the project.
"What would be the difference if we had a totally approved business plan?" he said. Noland went on to compare the Armory Square project to a shopping mall and said when shopping malls are built, it is not always known who all the tenants are going to be.
Grimm said he is also concerned that setting up the armory as a transportation and tourist hub and also allowing events to be held there are "conflicting" ideas.
"We ask visitors to come here and they do and they come to the visitor's center...and we say, 'No, wait a second, we have a wedding going on' or 'You can't go in there because the boy scouts are having a meeting,'" he said. "We need to narrow the mission. If we ask it to do too many things, it won't do any of them well."
Like Grimm, Glen McCabe thinks some things have been done out of order in regard to the project. McCabe is a Republican running for a council at-large seat in the November election.
"I think we all want to see the armory done," McCabe said. "(Mullen) was a good grant finder (but) I think he got his plan out of step. He found grants and then tried to incorporate them in a plan rather than have a plan and try to incorporate grants."
Mullen said he knows it's been a long road but that the timing had to be right.
"You don't present the project before it's time - we are now at that time," Mullen said. "With the council recommendation last week to let us go out for bids, we can now match up the architect's estimate of cost and the funding we have available and match that with a publicly bid contract."
Mullen said "we are at the finish line" in regard to the Armory Square project. He said once it is completed, the armory will be a multi-use community center but also a "first class welcome center," drawing tourists to downtown Marietta.
"It's really about putting more heads in beds," Mullen said. "When that happens, the city bed tax goes up (and) that means that on a $100 room, the CVB - who will be the core tenant (in the Armory) - gets $3, the City of Marietta's general fund gets $3 and you grow and pay for the facility with the additional revenue that is generated from that effort."
Mullen noted that the Fairfield Inn & Suites, currently being constructed near the Pike Street and County House Lane intersection in Marietta, is expected to generate about $80,000 annually in bed tax. He said with that money, many of the utility and insurance bills for the armory would be paid for.
McCabe said he doesn't like the idea of the bed tax supporting the armory, nor does he think the CVB should be the only group submitting a business plan.
"I don't support it in any way if tax money if used to support it - I think it should stand on its own two feet," McCabe said, noting that the city should use the bed tax money for other purposes.
Republican 2nd Ward candidate Randy Wilson said he doesn't understand why construction bids are being sought before a "viable" business plan is in place, but that's not his only concern. He also questioned the specifics of how exactly the building would be used.
"I don't want us to compete with the hotels for a private event - they're for profit (and) we need to keep our hotels working for us," he said. "And how can you have a reception in there when there are public restrooms? If you're having a reception, you don't want someone to come in and use the restroom."
Still, he said hopes the project moves forward.
"I hope it happens because that's what the citizens want," Wilson said.