MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

December 30, 2012

Hatbox usage study comes under fire

Findings show consultants not familiar with city, critics say

— A draft report recommending the best uses and future development of Love-Hatbox Sports Complex has drawn some criticism since the study was released in November.

Critics described the consultants who presented the findings of their seven-month study as being out of touch with Muskogee and its needs. The study cost taxpayers $75,000 for a document that one official said includes “ideas” that never may see the light of day.

Jim Blair, a member of a committee that helped select the consulting firms that conducted the study and compiled the report, said he was disappointed with the results. He said some local suggestions were ignored and others were given short shrift.

“They let on like they really studied the market, but some of the ideas they came back with just shows me that really wasn’t done,” Blair said. “I brought up the issue about camping and RV hookups two or three times — you’ve got to have those if you expect to draw people to a music venue or livestock event — but those suggestions were left out.”

Some of the ideas that did make it into the report included an expansion of various sports programs, a seasonal outdoor market and limited agri-educational programs. Consultants said city officials should consider adding lacrosse to the sports lineup and a pond where people could fish for a fee. Those ideas, along with a recommendation to nix livestock shows, have been focal points for criticism.

City officials commissioned White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group and The Chesapeake Group in March to conduct the study. The move was prompted by plans to relocate the fairgrounds and activities regularly booked there. The study’s findings also were to be used to promote tourism by making Love-Hatbox Sports Complex a regional destination.

Consultants briefed city councilors of their findings in early November. Mayor Bob Coburn and others said they needed more time to digest the draft proposal and suggested a period of public comment before it was accepted. Nearly two months have passed without additional public discussion.

Parks and Recreation Director Mark Wilkerson said he hasn’t heard when the City Council will revisit the issue, but he expects it could resurface in January.

“It doesn’t surprise me because there is nothing there that is really set in stone or anything definite in the plans being proposed,” Wilkerson said about the lack of further discussion. “I am just waiting for the City Council to bring this back for consideration.”

Ward IV Councilor Kenny Payne said he was unconvinced that spending $75,000 for  the market analysis and report was the best use of taxpayer dollars. Payne, like Blair, tempered his criticism, saying he heard “a few ideas that might be worth something.”

But Payne expressed doubts about whether the consultants really know what the city needs. Part of that could be because the firms had no local ties. Payne said that could be either good or bad.

“When you hire somebody who has no local connections, they have no bias,” he said. “But because they have no local connection, they might come up with ideas that would crash like a plane with no engines.”

Payne said he disagreed with the consultants’ notion that there is no local interest in a multipurpose building. Payne also doubted consultants’ findings that there is little to no local support for livestock shows. He said anything the city is doing now to support those programs should continue.

“Anything we are doing for the 4-H livestock programs we need to keep doing, if not more,” he said. “Anything that would detract from that, I wouldn’t support.”

Coburn said he is “excited about the study,” noting that the draft report provides direction for future development and offers ideas and concepts that otherwise may have been overlooked. Coburn said the consultants “did exactly what we asked them to do.”

“Here you have professionals who are saying we are heading in the right direction with the water park and trails, and here are some other options,” he said, noting that   those operations are self-sustaining financially. “Then, it comes to the point of the community deciding what activities they want to subsidize.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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