Is it worth pouring more money — potentially millions — into a building that sits empty most of the time?
That's what Warner Robins City Council members are trying to decide as they look at whether to tear down or renovate the Homer J. Walker Civic Center.
The City Council has several options for the facility — all of which cost at least a million dollars. Rentals of the 1,400-seat Civic Center brought the city just $2,269 for the 10 months between July 2017 and April 2018. But it could cost anywhere from $1.1 million to $13.4 million to make the space more valuable.
According to the city, the estimated costs for demolishing the building — which was built in the early 1970s — renovating it, and rebuilding a similar-sized facility are:
- $1.1 million to demolish;
$1.4 million for renovations to exterior and electrical/plumbing upgrades;
- $5.3 million for full renovation;
- $13.4 million to tear down and rebuild new events center.
A renovated Civic Center could be a selling-point to a developer interested in building a hotel and conference center near the facility that's located on the same grounds as City Hall.
City Councilman Tim Thomas has mentioned replacing the Civic Center with an amphitheater, something that might be more attractive to a hotel and conference center developer.
But Mayor Randy Toms said he thinks the most viable choice is to use $1.4 million to replace the roof, doors and windows, make electrical and plumbing improvements and bring it up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
An upgraded center might be useful for the hotel and conference center owner, he said.
"It's structurally sound, but it's not a very good design (inside)," Toms said. "It's not Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. You couldn't build a building today with the way the stairs are. It needs to be leveled out. We would lose some seats, but it would be a safer building."
Renovations to the Civic Center could be part of a larger plan to upgrade other city-owned buildings, which would reap savings through reduced costs for utilities, Toms said.
However, the cost of upgrades to the Civic Center would offset any energy savings the city could see in the short term.
And yet the only way the city could afford to do any renovations at this time would be through financing them as part of the energy savings program, Councilman Keith Lauritsen said.
But it's better to hold off on making any decision about the Civic Center, Lauritsen said, until there is something more concrete about a hotel and conference center complex, something that's been in discussion during the five years he has served on City Council.
He said he thought demolishing the building was the best option until he found out it could cost $1.1 million to do so.
"I think the smart thing to do is to leave it as is until we can determine if there will be some sot of interest" from a developer, he said. "I would say partner with someone to refurbish it and I think the city could give it to the (developer) to entice a conference center."
Lauritsen added, "I think the biggest thing you could get out of the Civic Center is future economic development potential."
Civic Center rentals
Some city council members have expressed concern about how few events take place in the 45,000-square-foot facility.
"The acoustics are bad, the seating is not good, it’s just not a building that’s up to today’s standards for an event center," Toms said.
However, there have been some notable events throughout the history of the Civic Center.
Toms, a native of the International City of Georgia, fondly remembers seeing the hometown band Stillwater perform there in the late 1970s. He also would go with friends to watch wrestling matches.
The Civic Center also hosts the annual Miss Warner Robins pageant, a city-sponsored event.
The sentiment Toms said he's heard from residents he's talked to is that they are not in favor of tearing down the center.
"For the most part people don’t want to tear the building down," he said. "Warner Robins is just 75 years old, which is very young, but (the Civic Center) is part of our history."
Councilwoman Carolyn Robbins also said there shouldn’t be any rush among city leaders to determine the center's future. And although the Museum of Aviation has found success hosting events, the city needs to have its own facility as well, she said.
"I think it’s hard for a town our size to not have something like a civic center," Robbins said.