Remarks By Una President Ken Kitts: Meeting To Discuss Plans For The Florence Middle School
Feb. 20, 2017
Remarks by UNA President Ken Kitts Meeting to Discuss Plans for the Florence Middle School Shoals Marriott Conference Center - February 20, 2017 I would like to begin by thanking Mayor Holt for organizing this meeting for key stakeholders to discuss the decision regarding a new Florence Middle School. On behalf of all of us here tonight representing the University of North Alabama, we are grateful to have this opportunity to listen to all points of view, to explain our concerns, and to work together in the search for common ground on this difficult issue. Thanks go also to our fellow attendees this evening for taking the time to come and hear from us, and to share with us, on this topic. I've spent considerable time thinking about UNA's position on this issue, and I want to be clear on a few important points. First, our position is not driven by our transition to Division I, by the status of our football program, or even by the proud tradition of Lion Athletics. Those are all important considerations. Fundamentally, however, this is about how we as representatives of different stakeholder groups come together to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community as a whole. It's about finding a way to advance the interests of Florence City Schools while not crippling the multi-million-dollar asset that is Braly Stadium. Further, it's about protecting UNA's ability to grow so that we can continue to be the economic driver that Florence and the Shoals needs us to be. Second, this issue is far too big and complex to be resolved tonight or in the next few days. We come this evening with an offer of our own and a willingness to listen to all ideas brought forth. However, it will take time for us to examine and process options, so we ask you to work with us on a 60-day delay in the bid opening to give all of us the time and space we need to make good decisions. This postponement of the bid opening is a critical step, and I cannot emphasize it strongly enough. Good ideas can stand the test of time: a good idea today will be no less good 60 days from now. Third, there has been an attempt to portray UNA as an outlier on this issue, as an irresponsible stakeholder that has waited until the last minute to speak up. Perhaps, it has been suggested, we were not clear about our concerns, or perhaps we just didn't speak up at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the middle school has been under discussion for some time, we did not see the architectural plan until last year. It calls for the new school to be built within feet of the home side of Braly Stadium, thus eliminating most of the parking that had existed behind the old school. I assure you the loss of space involved is much greater than six feet. Were the impact on stadium access that minimal, we would not be raising these questions. Moreover, the plan as presented would eliminate direct pedestrian access from the west side of the property into the stadium. These are serious concerns. UNA has made a significant investment in Braly Stadium. We do not want to see that investment devalued, nor will we sit by and watch steps occur that make an already challenging parking situation at the stadium unmanageable for our fans. If the school is built according to the current plan, UNA will be forced to consider all options regarding the future home of UNA athletic events. We have raised these concerns early and often. In all candor, however, I must tell you that we have not been heard. Meetings were held with FCS officials, but the flow of information was always one way. Notification is not the same as advance consultation. We are not alone in feeling shut out of this process. Consider the views of Mickey Haddock, former mayor of the City of Florence who was in office while most of the decisions on the new school began to take shape. Mr. Haddock has affirmed to me that he spoke with the Superintendent many times in the last few years on the importance of Braly Stadium to UNA's future, on his questions regarding stadium parking, and on his concerns regarding traffic issues that would accompany a new school at the Coffee site. Nothing happened in the wake of those conversations, and Mr. Haddock came away feeling that his concerns were not given sufficient attention in the planning process. I relay this account to you with Mr. Haddock's consent. Then there is the experience of Dr. John Thornell, who served as interim President of UNA in 2014-15. On the matter of the middle school, Dr. Thornell recalls a conversation he had with the Superintendent during his time in office: "She indicated that the decision to build on that site was final and not open to further discussion. She shared that several people had contacted her on behalf of UNA and asked that the decision be revisited given its proximity to the stadium. She expressed a desire that such discussion cease." So, are we now to believe that all of these accounts are erroneous, and that all of these officials, including myself, were unclear or reticent? Of course not. There is a pattern here where concerns have been raised in a timely manner, and to the appropriate official, but then are dismissed in the rush to embrace a predetermined outcome. That is not collaboration. Finally, an FCS official stated in a recent news story that no site assessment for the new school occurred because it is not required by the law. For UNA, the location of the new school is secondary to its impact on our students and our interests. Even so, I found that comment interesting, and quite frankly, illuminating. On an issue this complex, this important, and this controversial, is it wise to base decisions on a minimalist legal approach? Should we not rise above that and, in the spirit of true partnership, consider what we can and should do for the good of all rather than what we are simply allowed to do by the law? These concerns, then, form the basis for our request for a 60-day delay in the bid opening process. The extra time is essential if we are to have the opportunity to work with you to find a solution acceptable to all parties.