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[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will appear at marconews.com and in the Friday edition of the Eagle exploring important issues of the day facing Marco Island and its leaders.]

To build or not to build, that is the question when it comes to Veterans Community Park, and the answer remains to be seen as both citizens and City Council members stand divided on the issue.

The city purchased the land that eventually became Veterans Community Park in the early 2000s, and in 2009 a committee of Marco Island residents devised a master plan for the park that included building a band shell, a concessions stand, restroom facility and a performing arts center.

Councilor Larry Honig said the city spent time and money developing the master plan, but now it might have to spend more time and money to bring the plan up to date.

"There was a master plan made several years ago. Some parts of that plan have already occurred or are no longer needed, so I think we need to reignite the master plan," Honig said. “We need to slow down and spend the money to hire an architect to update the master plan or create a site development plan.”

Councilor Joe Batte agrees with Honig, and said money is an important factor when discussing the future of Veterans Community Park.

“The original master plan just isn't going to happen anymore,” Batte said. “We need to make slow and incremental changes and think about how those changes are going to affect the city’s debt.”

Councilor Victor Rios addressed the future of Veterans Community Park in a guest commentary published in the Naples Daily News last month. He wrote that he, too, is concerned about how developing Veterans Community Park would impact the city's debt and, subsequently, the taxpayers.

"Additional debt at this time would be in conflict with the city manager's so-called 'bucket plan' — taxpayers were required to pay increased property taxes to pay off existing debt," Rios wrote. "This isn't a time for the city to take on more financial burdens that will require further increases in property taxes."

Rios recommended letting the citizens decide the future of the park through a referendum. Chairman Bob Brown said a referendum is an option but not a very likely one.

"If there's no solid answer as to what the people want, a referendum is a possibility," Brown said, "but I don't see it being necessary."

Councilor Kenneth Honecker said he tried to convince the City Council to put a Veterans Community Park referendum on the March 15, 2016 primary election ballot, but he was unsuccessful.

"[A referendum] would have been the most cost-effective way to get citizen input and to know for sure what the people want," Honecker said.

The Marco Island Civic Association (MICA) attempted to determine what the people want by conducting an independent survey; the organization asked 2,600 Marco Island residents about what they want the future of Veterans Community Park to be, and 82 percent were in favor of keeping the park as green space, according to Rios's commentary.

Green space might be pretty, Councilor Larry Sacher said, but it's not practical.

"If green space is so important, then why don't I ever see anyone using it?" he asked.

Rather than leaving the park as green space, Sacher said, the city should adopt the famous saying, 'if you build it, they will come' and build a band shell.

"Communities up and down the southwest coast have different entertainment events and we don't because we don't have a facility for events," Sacher said. "Having a permanent building would be a definite improvement to that space."

City Manager Roger Hernstadt agreed that building a band shell or otherwise developing the park would be an improvement, and it would not decrease the amount of green space as much as people fear.

"There's misinformation that if we build a band shell it would adversely affect the green space, but in reality it would only decrease the green space by no more than five percent," he said, "and it could be a positive use of that space that otherwise is not utilized the vast majority of the time."

Linda Turner, chair of the Marco Island Property Owners (MIPO) board of directors, wrote a letter to the editor criticizing both MICA and Councilor Rios for furthering that misinformation.

"The MICA survey offered one, broad question, regarding development of the park," Turner wrote. "In the MIPO Board's opinion, the absence of specificity left the respondent's imagination to wide open speculation and fear as to what might be developed on the property resulting in knee jerk 82 percent vote against further park development."

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) held a meeting in April for citizens to discuss the future of Veteran's Community Park. According to Turner, most of the citizens at the meeting were "relieved" to learn that the park would still have 94 to 95 percent green space after the construction of a band shell.

"We do not need to drag this issue on any longer. The people have spoken and they want green space and a band shell," Turner wrote. "It is a benefit for Marco Island; an enhancement of the park with a protected venue that can earn money while the community safely enjoys the facility."

Hernstadt said it would cost approximately $250,000 to begin the design process for developing Veterans Community Park, and that money was included in the 2017 fiscal year budget.

Rios said $250,000 is too much money and the city should gather more citizen input before committing that much money to creating a site development plan.

“Whether it’s one penny, 50 cents or two dollars, at the end of the day, a dollar here and there adds up,” Rios said at last week's budget workshop. “I would support a lower amount … for a site plan update.”

Rios recommended lowering the amount to $150,000, but ultimately the City Ccouncil approved the full amount of $250,000 in a 4-3 vote at the budget workshop.

Note: City council Vice Chair Amadeo Petricca said it's been his policy since he took office to not give interviews to the press. "If you want to hear what I have to say, come to the City Council meetings," he said.

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