Marked Tree Council throws out option to tear down Carver Gym

Thursday, December 24, 2015
Rev. Jimmy Johnson addresses Mayor Mary Ann Arnold and the city council. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

The Marked Tree municipal courtroom was packed Monday night for December's city council meeting with many people standing and overflowing out the door into the hallway. Several community members were on the agenda to speak about Carver Gym and ask the council not to consider tearing it down.

Carver Gym, the last remaining structure from George Washington Carver School which served as the school for Marked Tree's black community prior to integration, has been closed since April due to its deteriorated condition. In October, after months of discussion on whether to repair or rebuild the gym, the council was presented with three options to vote on: repairing the the gym, building a new one, or tearing the gym down and replacing it with a park. The council did not vote then as there were only estimates for the first two options--about $553,000 to renovate and about $948,000 to build a new gym based on estimates from Little & Associates.

Monday night, the council eventually voted to remove the option to replace the gym with a park, but it was a long road to get there. Community members addressed the council for nearly two hours.

George Washington Carver Alumni Association (GWCAA) president George Chester Dial's addressed the countil with several concerns, such as why option three was ever in consideration. Mayor Arnold said she liked to look at all options. Dial addressed the Burr & Cole estimates--$165,000 for renovation and $336,000 for a metal building to replace the gym--not being presented to the council. The mayor said she was sure they had been, but City Clerk Pam Wright said she would have to check. Some council members seemed to be aware of the estimates and some said they had never seen them. Mayor Arnold also said she was asked to get another estimate, the Little & Associates estimate, and that this estimate was high because it was for a building the same size as the existing gym. She said if a new gym is built, it will probably be smaller.

"All we're asking is please restore our gym," Dial said. "Bring the building up to standards so our young people can get in there." She said the GWCAA and the Carver Gym community would work to maintain the gym after the city restores it. Addressing concerns about past vandalism, Dial said, "That was the past. This is a new day and new people. I believe in my heart they (the young people) will take care of it because they will have ownership."

Rev. Jimmy Johnson also addressed the council. "This is dividing our city, and we don't want our city divided. We need to work together," he said. "We're not asking for a handout. We're just asking for what's fair."

Louis Bailey, who is part of the committee the mayor put together earlier in the year to come up with options for funding, said the committee had not been utilized very well and urged the council to vote either to restore the gym or build a new one and not to tear it down.

Last on the list to speak was Betty Shaw, who had been tasked with coming up with ideas for a possible park to replace the gym as part of option three. In the past, Shaw had worked on the grant to get playground equipment at Carver Gym. As she spoke about ideas, however, the audience became restless and started asking if the gym was in her plan. "We don't want a park. We want that gym," Dial said.

After more discussion, alderman Jerry Jones made a motion to remove the third option to replace the gym with a park from consideration. The vote was 4-4 with Cleo Johnson Jr., Danny Johnson, Jerry Jones, and Michael Scott voting in favor of removing option three and Soozi Williams, Steve Craig, Gail Nichols, and Mary Smith opposed. Mayor Mary Ann Arnold then had the option to cast the tie-breaking vote. The entire audience urged her to vote yes, and both Cleo Johnson and Steve Craig--who were sitting on either side of the mayor--spoke to her and seemed to be urging her to vote yes as well. Mayor Arnold voted yes, and the motion carried to thunderous applause.

Prior to making his motion to remove option three, Jones said the matter should also be tabled until the Carver Gym committee the mayor put together and the city council could agree on restoring the gym. A vote on whether to restore the gym or renovate it has still not been taken.

After the vote on removing the third option passed, several people, including Rev. Jimmy Johnson and GWCAA president George Chester Dial, asked that the committee be reformed and that the GWCAA be allowed to help pick committee members. Cleo Johnson suggested Jimmy Johnson take Larry Teague's place on the committee. But Mayor Arnold dismissed all requests to reform the committee. Jerry Jones suggested people who want to be on the committee could serve as advisors to the committee members.

The full article can be read in the Dec. 24 edition of the Poinsett County Democrat Tribune.

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