DOBSON — Supporters of the Edward M. Armfield Sr. Civic and Recreation Center appeared before county officials this week, seeking $225,000 to fund most of a repair project that is needed by mid- to late-spring.
Leah Tunstall, the civic center director, sent out a letter to members in late September informing them that the William G. Reid Competition Pool is in danger of closing in the spring of 2021.
Tunstall is a former college swimmer and a longtime swim coach, whose children have starred on local swim teams for years. Through year-round swim team PAC Swimming, she also has coached kids who attend other schools and have gone on to college swim teams.
So when a veteran like Tunstall said the facility is in danger of closing, people took notice.
With an Olympic-sized pool enclosed, evaporation quickly leads to high levels of humidity, requiring a powerful system to dehumidify the air. The system that was installed in 2002 was only rated for 10 years, but has been kept running for 18. Now, the center can’t keep it going any longer.
Tunstall said the equipment will cost $265,000, with half of that needed by the end of this year and the rest ready by May.
At this week’s meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners, Christopher Cooke said he serves as board president of the United Fund of Surry and the president of the Cardinal Fund. He also is one of the people taking a lead in helping raise money for the needed repair.
“As you know, the Armfield Civic Center has been built by and championed by our community for two decades now.”
That’s not to say funding from the state and the Armfield Foundation didn’t play a big part in making the construction possible, Cooke was quick to add.
“But the citizens of our county donated out of their own pockets over $2 million toward making sure that that facility was built, maintained and operated and improved.”
Cooke added, “I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not asking that it only be done on the county’s back.”
Yes, it is a swimming pool, but it is more than just a place to splash around in the water, he explained.
East Surry hosts swim meets with several other high schools participating during the winter. But the Cardinals aren’t the only ones.
Surry Central High School and the middle schools of Pilot Mountain, Central, Meadowview and Gentry all use the pool. So does the swim team PAC Swimming.
“Adults and senior citizens use that facility for water aerobics and rehabilitation from a joint injury or a hip replacement or something of that nature,” Cooke said.
Cooke said the goal is to raise $300,000 for the project.
“Several concerned citizens started this fundraising project just a few weeks ago round about Oct. 1,” he said.
By Halloween, a small committee made up of Tunstall, Cooke, and Kelly and Andy Hull had spearheaded the fundraising to $73,000.
Two weeks later at Monday’s county board meeting, Cooke said the committee was just a few dollars shy of $141,000.
Today is another fundraising effort as the Armfield Center is partnering with 13 Bones for a barbecue chicken benefit from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Plates are $10 and include BBQ chicken, slaw, baked beans and a roll. Plates can be picked up at the Civic Center or delivered free with the purchase of more than five plates.
So this group of people asking the county for help hasn’t been sitting on their hands, said Cooke.
David Diamont, a former state representative and longtime football coach, addressed the board as a fellow politician.
“What is a wise expenditure of tax money? This is it, this is wise. It’s cradle to the grave; we take care of people from top to bottom.”
He said Pilot Mountain is the gateway to Surry County.
“To say we have an eight-lane Olympic indoor pool, that’s economic development. That shows a kind of pride in our community. I know what it’s like to have a tight budget, and have to have a balanced budget, and have everybody in the world asking for something.”
When he was part of the General Assembly, Diamont led an effort that landed $750,000 in state funds to help with the initial construction.
Harry Wilson said, “I’ve been on the board at the Armfield Civic Center since 2002, and I’ve been president the last three years.”
He said he is shocked that the system the pool needs can cost nearly $300,000.
“You would think for that kind of money, that would run every HVAC system in the facility, but there are literally 11 different HVAC systems in that facility,” Wilson said.
“This one specialized system, which all indoor pools have — and which are pretty much required to have, because believe me, I sure looked into the possibility of, ‘Why can’t we put a regular HVAC system in this and do away with this $300,000 nightmare,’ but that’s not practical.”
“We hate to come forward and ask for help. We like to be as self-sufficient as we can.”
Unfortunately, just like gyms have suffered with state restrictions, the civic center has lost a great deal of revenue this year.
Owning a pool is like owning a boat, said Commissioner Mark Marion. It can be a money pit, and folks keep pouring money down in the hole.
However, in this case, he has seen the center being used by many children over the years, and it gives kids a place to go and helps keep them out of trouble.
After hearing about the request before the meeting, Marion said, “We’ve talked about it. I just want you to know we hear you, and we’re doing everything in our power to see what we can do.”
Commissioner Van Tucker said, “I appreciate the community effort you folks have put forward. … It sounds like you guys have done a really good job at your part of raising some of this money.”
When folks have reached out to him in recent days, Tucker said he told them that he couldn’t promise anything because it takes at least three votes on any decision.
“This board is all about helping Surry County where it can. And certainly the Armfield Civic Center is a vital part of the East District, the Pilot Mountain area.”
To Wilson, Tucker asked, “When is a time when you feel like you would absolutely need a definitive answer on how much this board was going to be able to help you?”
“There is a 14-week lag time on equipment to come in,” said Wilson. The contractor wants this part of the money up front before they will order the equipment. So he would like to have that half paid by Dec. 20, but certainly by the first of 2021.
“By the end of March, the pool will be shut down,” Wilson said.
The reason the center is able to use the pool now is that the outside humidity has dropped since the end of warm weather. The system can exchange inside air for outside air (and of course heat it) so that it isn’t so humid indoors.
The center staff and volunteers are doing the tear-out of the old system themselves to save $18,000, he added.
“Then they will begin installation probably in the middle of April with a four- to six-week time period.”
The typical way the county handles this is to mull things over and come back at the next meeting or a month later to discuss what to do, said Tucker. He said with the chairman’s discretion, he would suggest coming back in December and seeing what the county is able to do.
“It’s quite an astonishing amount of money they’ve been able to raise,” said Commissioner Eddie Harris via internet link. “It’s quite admirable, and I compliment you folks for doing a good job.”
Harris said he knows that the center has some debt and hopes it can pay that off because the facilities are a vital part of the community for sure.
“This commissioner here is inclined to work with the board to accommodate something for you folks. Like I said, keep up the good work. You’re doing great.”
Wilson said to Harris that when he joined the board in 2002, the debt was $1.5 million, and the mortgage payment was almost $15,000 a month.
The debt has been cut down to $330,000, and the mortgage is up for renewal.
Since he has been board president the past three years, he said the margin has been $26,000 to the good, in good shape until the COVID closing.
Chairman Larry Johnson said it appeared that the board was unanimous in wanting to help. He suggested the committee continue its fundraising efforts, and the county would put the issue on the agenda to discuss it again at the next meeting, which was three weeks later on Dec. 7.
County Manager Chris Knopf was not present Monday night, but by Dec. 7 Knopf could work with his finance staff to see what options are available in the budget in mid-year.
Wilson said the system has an exact quote of $264,000, but that is without a contingency fund.
The county typically builds a contingency into its own projects, such as 10%. If the center went by that approach, the amount to set aside would be around $290,000.
Not only that, Wilson said, but the center’s reserves took a big hit over the summer, so if there happened to be anything left after the work is done, it would be nice to put something back in reserve that has fallen to $20,000 for an operation with a $600,000 annual budget.
This isn’t the first time that supporters of the civic center have pitched in to help out — just the most recent.
It was only a year and a half ago that a Pilot Mountain mom appeared before the board to talk about the need for new playground equipment.
At that time, Jennifer Slate said a fundraising effort was “just starting to shake the bushes” for donations, and the parents had only collected $17,000 toward a $100,000 goal.
The county agreed to pitch in $20,000 in the 2019-20 fiscal budget, and Pilot Mountain also agreed on $20,000, providing $40,000 in public funds. By the end of January of this year, Slate said the group had reached a total of $114,000.
Pilot Town Manager Michael Boaz, in handling the funds to make the equipment purchase, said that $55,000 of the total came through Armfield (which included the volunteers’ amount), which was more than the $40,000 from the town and county.