The future of Porterdale
Organization makes plea for historic gym

PORTERDALE - If you rebuild it, they will come.

That was the message that approximately 20 supporters of the reconstruction of Porter Memorial Gymnasium brought to the City Council at its work session on April 15.

Kay Coggin, president of Friends of Porterdale Inc., a nonprofit organization formed to help fund the gym reconstruction, made an impassioned plea to the council to see the gym project through to completion and not let it languish. Coggin also questioned where some of the funds earmarked for the gym have gone and why no work has been done on the gym since it burned more than two years ago.

Coggin said she believes strongly that the gym project will be key to the continued revitalization in Porterdale that began with the renovation of the old mill building into loft condos.

"If this gym is not rebuilt, this town will not grow any more than it has already grown," said Coggin, "because you don't have anything to make people want to come to Porterdale on a regular basis."

Coggin told the council that if the gym is rebuilt as a multi-use facility, as the Friends of Porterdale envision, it will provide a venue for a variety of activities that will draw people to the historic mill village.

"Stop the game-playing," she exhorted the council, "and focus on rebuilding the gym."

The historic Porter Memorial Gymnasium was gutted by fire in October 2005. The fire left the gym's exterior brick walls standing, but nothing remains of the interior. The fire was apparently deliberately set, though no one has been arrested in the arson.

Coggin asked the council to explain how the town's depot was renovated using a portion of special purpose local option sales tax dollars that she believed had been designated for renovation of the gym before it burned.

Councilman Robert Foxworth said that Porterdale's share of the SPLOST was $500,000. Of that amount, he said county officials agreed to earmark $55,000 to use as matching funds for a state Department of Transportation grant for the depot.

Porterdale was required to provide a 20 percent match for the $278,000 transportation enhancement grant. The DOT funding was available because the project was considered part of the county's multi-use trail system. The depot will be used as the trail head for Phase III of the trails project that will run from Newton High School to Porterdale.

Mayor Bobby Hamby said that all of the money so far accumulated for the gym is not enough to complete the project. One early estimate placed the cost of rebuilding the gym at $3.9 million.

Combining the $445,000 that remains of the SPLOST funds with a $20,000 state grant received last year and $200,000 allocated by the 2008 Legislature, comes to a total of $665,000. The city also received a $204,000 insurance settlement on the building, although some of the money has been spent on safeguarding the gym and storage of the contents that were salvaged from the fire.

Hamby said the council is advertising for bids from architects in order to get a plan in place for rebuilding the gym, and they may be able to get the roof done this year as well. An architect is scheduled to be selected at the June 2 council meeting.

"We're not going to get enough public money to do this," said Hamby. "We are going to need private dollars - that's where y'all come in."

Coggin told the council that the Friends have applied for three grants to help fund reconstruction; one has been denied, but the other two are pending.

She also told the council that there is a generation of people who are interested in the gym's future - not just the handful of active members of the Friends.

"I think some people on the City Council may think that there are only nine people who care what happens to the gym, and that's why these people are here tonight," she said of the crowd gathered.

Two council members - Kay Piper and Arline Chapman - pledged their full support to the project.

"I am totally, 100 percent dedicated to seeing that nothing else goes on that property but the restoration of the Porter Memorial Gymnasium," Piper said.

"The future of Porterdale is locked into the history of Porterdale," Chapman said.

The Porterdale Gym was constructed in 1938 and built as a gift to the city from Oliver and Julia Porter, the owners of Bibb Manufacturing Co. The facility was built with wood floors and wood bleachers that could seat as many as 5,000 people, by some accounts. The structure was vacant at the time of the blaze, and most of the contents destroyed, including old city records and all of the city's Christmas decorations.

Alice Queen can be reached at alice.queen@newtoncitizen.com.