DALTON, Ga. -- The furor over whether to raise sales taxes in Whitfield County has coalesced around a proposed $12 million performing arts center -- a center proponents say would create jobs and attract young people to the area, but detractors say is a waste of taxpayer money in a financially strapped county.
Much about the center remains nebulous in the two weeks since the project was placed on the November referendum, such as details of how the center was placed on the projects list, where it would be built, how big it would be and if the city even would spend the money on it.
"I'm concerned that the public doesn't know what they need to know about this arts center before they go to the polls and vote," city resident Deborah Duvall told the mayor and City Council at the recent council meeting. "There are so many questions about it, and we may end up in a position where we'll have to build it."
Elected city officials have been less than supportive of the project, citing the area's 12.6 percent unemployment and struggling economy.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington -- who opposes the sales tax increase that would fund county parks, road and safety equipment and city greenways in addition to the arts center -- called the project a "pie in the sky."
City Councilman Gary Crew said he would like to see a center in Dalton but does not think it should be built with taxpayer dollars.
Meanwhile, county leaders say they fear the arts center could become a contentious issue that kills the sales tax referendum the county desperately needs for capital funds.
"If they vote just on the emotions, it is probably going to be an issue, from the comments I've seen and heard," County Commission Chairman Mike Babb said. "But if they really understand and study the issue -- that private funds will help build the project or that the money could be used to lower taxes -- they can see it is a good thing for taxpayers."
The performing arts center was a last-minute addition to the city projects list, coming after county commissioners voted to approve a list that did not include it. At the request of the city, commissioners voted several days later to rescind the vote and add the arts center.
Crews said the performing arts center was listed when the county considered a four-year sales tax increase. Under that plan, the county would have funded $3 million, the city $3 million, the schools $3 million and $3 million would have come from private funds.
The idea was bumped when the county cut the proposal to a two-year plan. At the last minute, the city received calls from people supporting the center and it was put back on the list, Crews said.
Under the proposal, if approved, the city will fund $6 million coming from the two-year, 1 percent sales tax increase, Dalton City Schools will fund $3 million and private funds would supply $3 million.
City administrator Ty Ross said city staff members made the decision to place the center on the projects list at the recommendation of members of the Archway Partnership, a University of Georgia program partially funded by the city to provide input on ways to improve the community.
"The city is paying Archway money to look at these ideas; we think we should take their recommendations seriously," Ross said.
Dixie Kinard and John Schwenn, president of Dalton State College, are both members of Archway's executive committee and have voiced strong support for the performing arts center.
Dalton does not have a center to accommodate certain types of entertainment, which means that people spend money in Chattanooga or Atlanta for those events, they say.
In May, the Archway Partnership identified two top priorities for arts in Dalton, a performing arts center and an Arts and Culture Consortium.
The various theaters in Dalton, such as the Dalton Little Theater and the Artistic Civic Theater, are small and do not accommodate up to the 1,200 people the new center would seat. The Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center can seat up to 3,000 but has limited sound and lighting capabilities.
Last year, the annual Christmas performance of "The Nutcracker" had to be moved to The Colonnade in Ringgold, Ga., because of an increased demand for seating.
Kinard and others involved in promoting the need for a new performing arts center say they are still working on the details for it -- where it would be built, how big it would be and how much it would cost.
However, even if the money is approved for the sales tax, Pennington has indicated he is not sure the city actually would spend the money for the center.
When Duvall addressed the City Council last week, Pennington told her the project may never be completed with taxpayers' money.
"There are also matching things in there, if the match doesn't come up, it kills the whole projects," Pennington said. "One of those matches I already know is not going to come to fruition."
He later added, "We don't need it right now and, if it is built, private citizens should fund it."
Under a new state law passed this spring, elected officials can decide a project approved in a referendum no longer is feasible and ask voters to approve their decision.
In this case, the Dalton City Council would need to pass a resolution declaring the performing arts center not feasible. The voters then would vote if they wanted to abandon the project.
The vote would be an up-or-down vote and would not determine how the money should be used, according to Dalton City Attorney Jim Bisson.
If voted down, the new law says the money would be used to pay down debt or put into the general fund to reduce taxes in the city.
At the City Council meeting, Pennington told Duvall he plans to find out as much as he can about the performing arts center and provide information to the public, but his primary goal is to defeat the sales tax increase.
"We don't see anything in the near-term future to turn this economy around in Dalton unless we can get the sales tax down to a nickel," Pennington said. "This SPLOST is going to be defeated."
Babb said whether the money is used for an arts center or if it goes toward paying down debt, citizens should look carefully at the projects list for both the county and city to decide if they support it.
"The County Commission feels confident that we have put together a list of needed projects," Babb said.
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at email@example.com or 706-980-5824.