Billed by the SPLOST Citizens Advisory Committee as the centerpiece of the proposed $63.8 million package, details remain sketchy on the $8 million Rome-Floyd County Agricultural Center — but supporters contend it’s a worthwhile project.
“You know the saying, ‘Build it and they will come?’ With this, it’s ‘Don’t build it and someone else will,’ like Bartow or Polk,” said Floyd County Extension Agent Keith Mickler.
The project was submitted by retired Pepperell High School agriculture teacher and farmer Carey Harris, who came to the committee presentation with dozens of enthusiastic backers. His information was short on specifics but long on possibilities.
County Manager Jamie McCord said the citizen-submitted animal shelter in the 2013 SPLOST had the same issues, but PAWS — the Public Animal Welfare Services facility that opened on North Avenue last December — has been a rousing success.
“I think we need to leave it wide open to develop partnerships,” McCord said about the ag center. “If voters approve it, we’re going to make it work.”
The Nov. 7 countywide vote is on an extension of the 1-cent special purpose, local option sales tax that runs through March 31, 2019. That means there would be at least two years to firm up the plans.
Harris’ proposal is for a multi-purpose complex that could house a variety of agricultural activities — essentially a regional hub for business, education, tourism and special events.
Offices for agencies such as Mickler’s University of Georgia Extension Service and the Farm Bureau would be located around an arena for livestock, horse and pet shows. A store for Georgia Grown products, along with a coffee and ice cream shop, space for food trucks and a permanent farmers market also would be part of the complex.
Harris said RV hook-ups and a covered eating area next to the farmers market and food truck area would boost traffic at the facility.
“We’ll be tenants in that space,” Mickler said. “But the real selling points are the arena, for different animal shows and things they don’t want in the Forum (River Center) … And we need a larger farmers market. This town is affluent enough and active enough to have a large farmers market.”
The extension office is currently tucked into a corner of the Floyd County Administration Building. Moving it would free up some space there, and give Mickler’s team enough room to host more programs such as gardening, sustainable farming and landscaping clinics.
“Any time we do a program, we have to go places,” he said. “We don’t have a meeting room and there’s definitely not enough parking here.”
Animal welfare groups, colleges and high schools also could make use of the complex, which would likely include classrooms and banquet space.
McCord said he’s been in talks with a number of entities that have indicated interest, and he got some more ideas during a weekend visit to Blue Ridge.
“It was agritourism on every corner,” he said. “We could even have what they call ‘heritage arts,’ like a cannery or a forge, things that draw people into a community.”
What’s left to do
A location hasn’t been determined, although officials have said they’d like to keep it close to Rome to encourage lunchtime visits and shopping. McCord said he’s looked at more than a dozen potential sites, but it’s too early to settle on one.
“The operation is obviously the key (to success), and having as many partners as possible,” he said. “That’s why we want to leave it open for now.”
He and Mickler took trips to the ag centers in Carroll and Coweta counties to see how they operate, although McCord said neither is as inclusive as what’s proposed in Floyd County. Carroll’s is “like a pole barn,” he said, run by the extension service and available for classes and special events. In Coweta, the Kiwanis Club manages the facility and holds its fair there.
“Carey’s model has been more of a consolidation of services,” McCord said.
There’s also an ongoing cost, which is what McCord wants to mitigate. Carroll County subsidizes its center by about $240,000 a year and Coweta puts in about $450,000 annually.
Leasing space to the store vendors, food trucks and agencies that could include the UGA Experiment Station, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Services, would offset the county’s cost.
“Ours could be between Carroll’s and Coweta’s, depending on what we build and where,” McCord said. “But we’re already putting $170,000 a year into (the extension office).”
He said the state and federal agencies all have current leases, but representatives have informally said they’d be interested in moving. Berry College, Shorter University and Georgia Highlands College also have ag programs, as do Floyd County and Rome City schools.
“Floyd County is taking the lead, but how much do we spend (on planning) before the vote,” McCord said. “If it passes, we’re going to do it and make it as successful as possible.”