Mayor Ted Ellis announced a plan Friday to combine two potential community projects: The $1 million downtown plaza and a $1 million Interurban Trail extension from Monroe Street to Jackson Street.
The proposal was announced at the end of his annual State of the City address during the Wells County Chamber of Commerce quarterly luncheon at Timber Ridge Golf Club’s Club 250. He proposed using Local Income Tax money to prepare biddable documents, as well as using LOIT money as matching funding for any donations and grants.
During the mayor’s address, he outlined the city’s current position — including a new record of $20 million in the bank, up $1 million from 2015; an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent; and the lowest tax rate of any adjacent county seat at $0.56 — and several upcoming multimillion dollar projects.
Preliminary costs for a new or substantially renovated water filtration plant are about $10 million, Ellis said. The plant, built about 50 years ago, has controls that look like something out of a “hokey 1960s science fiction movie.”
A new substation, with a price tag of $2 million, for the Electric Department is necessary to meet the needs of the system, the demands on which has more than doubled in the past 20 years, Ellis said, and to allow workers to shift the load off one substation at a time for maintenance.
This will allow more dependable electrical service to Bluffton homes and businesses, he said.
Also, the city is in the first year of a five-year, $3.5 million capital improvement plan at the wastewater facility to replace aging parts on the system.
It is with improvements like these that Ellis said there are two truths: It costs a lot of money to keep a city running.
“And, over time, wants and needs begin to converge and begin to change,” Ellis said.
Two committees, he said, have formed to address what older generations may call “wants” and Millennials may call “needs.”
Ellis recalled Bluffton Common Councilman John Whicker approaching him a few months ago about extending the Interurban Trail from Monroe Street to Lancaster Central Elementary School on Jackson Street. He urged officials not to wait another 15 years to do it, and has gathered a committee to work out the details. Ellis said he and Whicker both believe there is community support for such a project today.
Meanwhile, Bluffton NOW! has announced a plan to create a downtown plaza space on Market Street. The goal, Ellis said, is to open downtown for community activities and to attract businesses, and those who say it won’t work should look no further than the Rivergreenway. Construction of that path, he said, was once the target of ridicule.
“The laughter has long since subsided,” he said.
A green space near the courthouse is what almost every other county in the state has had for a hundred years, Ellis added.
He asked the luncheon attendees to imagine they are from a business interested in coming to Wells County and they come from the north and see this trail and people using it. Then they head south toward downtown and see the plaza in use, before realizing the Rivergreenway then can connect them to the state park.
That five-minute drive can be a selling point for economic development, Ellis argued.
There are rough cost estimates, outlines and ideas for the projects but firm plans need created in order to proceed, he said.
Then Ellis proposed combining the projects and using existing LOIT funding for the documents. There will be a search for grant money, and such documents could help in that process, he said. Having those plans, and with the common council’s approval, a funding plan can be created, Ellis added, and that plan should include using LOIT to match grant money and donations.
Ellis wrapped up his address with the story of Florence Chadwick, who tried in 1952 to swim 21 miles from Catalina Island to the California coast. After 15 hours in the bone-chilling water and the dense fog, Ellis said, Chadwick asked to be removed from the water. She couldn’t see the coast a half mile away due to the fog.
Ellis said the goals discussed are within reach if they look behind the fog of skepticism and those people who will say no to any good idea other than having a time machine to take the city back 50 years ago.
“We can do this,” he concluded. “We’re almost there.”
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