Last night, the Congress Square Re-Design Study Group, “CSRSG,” rejected a proposal by RockBridge Capital to build a ballroom on part of the Congress Square Park that is in the heart of the city’s Arts District. The ballroom would have provided additional events facility for the historic Eastland Hotel that is undergoing a $30M rennovation by the Ohio based company. Seven members of the twelve member task force voted against the proposal; three abstained from the vote and two voted against the motion made by councilor David Marshall. The recommendation will go to the city’s HCDC on August 8th for its consideration; then it will go to the full City Council.
By way of background, the city’s task force, “CSRSG,” was appointed by the city council almost four years ago. At one point, the task force recommended that a request for design services proposal for the Park be developed. However, it was never acted upon. Last fall, RockBridge Capital, new owners of the historic Eastland Hotel, presented its plan for a ballroom that would have gobbled up most of the Park. Since that time, RockBridge has shrunk it’s footprint at the Park to better accommodate the needs of the city for a public space for the community. Last night’s four hour meeting – 6 pm – 10 pm – at city council chambers was the culmination of many hours of discussions by representatives of RockBridge and the city.
At issue, was RockBridge’s refusal to make a financial commitment to restoring the Park to a more appealing place for tourists and guests at area hotels. Adam Valente, representing the company, said that financial information would have to come at a later date which did not satisfy many – leading one of the many opponents to the proposal to claim that developers make promises that they never keep – they just walk away from them. USM professor, David Wagner, referred to this park as Checkerboard Square because of antique replica cobblestones in it. In his book, by that name, he wrote it was originally built to attract tourists and hotel visitors to the area. Rather it serves as a center for street people because of its central location. Following the meeting, Valente acknowledged his company would not have proposed the ballroom had the Park lived up to its original intent. No financial negotiations had begun on this proposal according to Greg Mitchell, director of the city’s economic development office.
Mounting the most compelling argument in favor of the proposal was task force member Barbara Whitten. “There are very few opportunities for private and public investments such as this one. I have to turn away lots of national conventions because of lack of safety in that park. It could sit there for another ten years and nothing will happen. I have not seen any options for that park in 25 years. It’s unsafe and unsavory for businesses in the area as it is.”