PADUCAH — We continue our series on the city of Paducah’s decision to fund a $20.5 million indoor recreation and aquatic center. In 2018, Paducah Mayor Brandi Harless made it a priority to create a nonprofit organization that could offset some operating costs of new recreation projects. The city needed the help of private funds to move forward, and a Paducah orthopedic surgeon, Shiraz Patel, knew the people who could make it happen.
Patel is the Paducah Swim Team coach, and had been championing a new indoor competition swimming pool for the past six years. Patel, a successful, world-class surgeon described as passionate and determined, felt no one was listening to him as city and county leaders passed on an indoor aquatic center.
The Paducah Swim Team has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into rented practice spaces, feasibility studies and maintenance costs for its current home — the Paducah Athletic Club.
As he continued to ask for help building an aquatic center, a failed baseball tournament was happening at Noble Park in May 2018. The existing facilities couldn’t handle the tournament, and better ball fields became a priority for McCracken County Commissioner Eddie Jones and Paducah City Commissioner Gerald Watkins.
"We don't have enough softball/baseball facilities, restroom facilities, our soccer fields are way inferior and they're literally built on the dump," Watkins told Local 6 on April 11, 2019.
It wasn’t a new priority for Watkins. He was on the Paducah City Commission when it voted in 2009 to spend $900,000 to buy land and build a sports complex on Sheehan Bridge Road. A sports enthusiast assured the commission he could raise $1 million to reimburse the commission within a year. The fundraising effort stalled, and the project died.
This time, McCracken County Commissioner Eddie Jones was also pushing for new facilities. He received a win after the McCracken County Fiscal Court approved a transient room tax in August 2019 to fund new baseball, softball and soccer fields.
"All you got to do is drive around town and talk to a few parents and ask them what they did last weekend, and they'll tell you, 'Well, we were in Owensboro for tennis or we were in Bowling Green for softball," Jones said to WPSD after the meeting.
Ultimately, the county would take over construction of the ball fields, and the city would focus on an indoor recreation and aquatic center.
Harless said the possibility of a recreation center that could include a pool started for her in late 2017 or early 2018, before Watkins and Jones raised the profile of the need.
"I realized that it was easy — not easy, but it's easier to find construction dollars," Harless said. "It's harder to find operations and maintenance dollars over time."
That’s where Friends of the Parks could come in: to raise money to supplement taxpayer dollars.
"So, that was about the time that we did start getting the Patels and the swim team coming to us saying, 'Hey, we really wish we could do this,'" Harless said. "And all along, I was kind of like, yeah, this is interesting, guys. But there's no way the city government can take on this risk by itself."
In April 2018, "Create Friends of the Parks" would be introduced in a strategic plan drafted by Harless. A medium priority was suggested for that objective. The city ranks priorities, low, medium, high and W.I.N.(What’s Important Now).
The objective made it to the approved strategic plan in August 2018, still called "Create Friends of the Parks Organization - MEDIUM PRIORITY."
The city would continue to track and upgrade this item's priority level for a year and a half in public. In private, messages had been landing in Harless’ inbox, like an email in March 2018 from future Friends of the Parks board member and swim team president Patel.
The email came ahead of a community meeting focused on making a healthier community. “If we don’t build facilities to attract young families here, our medical field is on the verge of a serious decline,” Patel said. He said he was becoming frustrated waiting on something he felt the community needed.
“There's nothing I'd love better than my kids to move back and live by me," he said. "But right now, I wouldn't recommend them to come here.”
City manager notes show future members of Friends of the Parks continued to meet with the mayor and city staff throughout 2018. That includes a 163-mile taxpayer funded trip to Effingham, Illinois, in September 2018 to visit its indoor fitness and aquatic center, built when Paducah City Manager Jim Arndt worked there. It was a trip that Shiraz Patel’s wife, Melanie Patel, took as a swim team representative.
"In the process of talking with the city, we said, well, we're going to go ahead, and we're going to apply for grants and try and raise money to start raising money for this pool," Melanie Patel said, "And then it came to be that, well, maybe we need to start a 501(c)(3)."
On Oct. 31, 2018, Friends of the Parks was created with the purpose to create an endowment fund that will further “inspire, educate and promote healthy living in Paducah.” At first, there were three board members — and later eight.
On Dec. 3, 2018, Assistant City Manager Michelle Smolen emailed Parks Director Mark Thompson, saying she “met with Shiraz and Melanie Patel, Amanda Esper, Mayor Harless and Jim Arndt in regards to a community recreation center and natatorium grant application to the Eckstein Foundation."
Fast forward to Jan. 5, 2019, about two months after Friends of the Parks was officially created. The Paducah City Commission had its first strategic plan retreat, and everyone’s focus was sports facilities. Though it already existed as a private nonprofit, the commission voted to make "Creating Friends of the Parks" a W.I.N. priority.
We asked Harless about that. She said, "I don't have a clue. I don't know if it was a paperwork thing or maybe Michelle (assistant city manager) as she was going through it with Jim, because she does the updates, they do the updates, if she was thinking 'Hey it's already going,' I don't know."
Harless and City Commissioner Brenda McElroy were given this objective to manage. At the same time, the commission made “Research, plan, design and construct a sports plex and recreation aquatic facility," a W.I.N. priority.
On Jan. 21, 2019, Patel wrote to Harless, the commissioners and others about impatience with a city timeline for the project. He said he was disappointed with a 10-month time frame just to get a survey and plan. He didn't approve of the consultant.
He wrote: "This is the height of inefficiency often seen by consultants.”
He continued: "There is urgency to get this done. This city is losing population, and I am seeing the medical community dying off...Our biggest potential donor; Mr. Eckstein is aging fast and in poor health. He himself wants to see this get done.”
Mr. Eckstein, a wealthy local philanthropist, died, at age 93, two months later. The Ray & Kay Eckstein Charitable Trust he founded in Paducah with his wife has assets in the $150-million range. Its key values include faith, family, education, vibrant communities, and human needs.
“This is how this evolved into a wellness center, because rightfully so, they said 'Look, if we’re gonna', if the Eckstein foundation is going to, if all these big donors are going to donate to something, they wanted to see something that’s going to benefit all people — not some people,'" Patel said.
McElroy, who supported better recreation in her bid for office, also wanted to get the project done.
McElroy responded to Patel’s Jan. 21 email, saying, “the accelerated time frame we must prioritize.” Harless committed to not letting the slowness of government get in the way, but said they had to do it in a “financially responsible way. This will include generating the endowment fund so we can help subsidize operation costs.”
“We need to be very grateful that we have people that are willing to give their time freely and their money to enhance our city and for the well being of everyone here," said McElroy.
It wouldn't be the last time deadlines were an issue. On June 16, 2019, Melanie Patel sent an email following a Friends group meeting with Smolen. It was sent to a mix of people, including McElroy, saying, “This discussion got heated as the plan was to start design in 2020 and construction in 2021. Those dates were new to us.” That resulted in an email from Arndt to the mayor and commissioners on June 18 saying Arndt and Parks Director Mark Thompson met about the concern and were addressing it.
Groundbreaking was later changed to fall of 2020 with completion of construction in 2021. Arndt has previously said it was not due to pressure from any Friends of the Parks members. The August 2019 Strategic Plan had called for construction to begin sometime after July 1, 2021, and complete between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. The first draft by Harless in April 2018 had completion in 2025.
Friends of the Parks has not reported any fundraising commitments toward the publicized $10-million endowment as of the time this story aired. Nor does the city have any formal agreement with Friends of the Parks.
I asked commissioner McElroy, “You all still don't have a place yet any type of agreement with them to actually raise $10 million? Is that correct?"
She replied, "Well, they haven't even started really trying to get it, but yeah, they will. They will start that process. Right. And I think that there was some talk about that kind of a contract, but I'm not aware of what that is."
I followed up, "Do you think it's important to have one?"
She said, "I have to investigate that. I'm not sure if that does anything for us or not."
Friends of the Parks makes it clear they will control how the endowment is used, not the city. That was a clarification Melanie Patel made in an email to McElroy on June 27, 2019. Patel writes “…as stated in our bylaws, the city and county do not have a vote in how we allocate the funding…as of now we have the Endowment going towards the operations of the Natatorium.”
“What we would like to do is have it be towards the pool. It is going to be the most expensive part of all of this. And it will be, it will be the thing that that costs the most money. And so that's really why we felt strongly so maybe a bigger portion of that does go to the pool just because they're going to need it more.”
That’s also why Patel thought it was important for Friends of the Parks to be on the five-member design team to work with Lose, the company the city is paying $1.1 million to design the center. It’s a spot McElroy guaranteed them in an email on June 21, 2019. The other four members of that team are city employees. Melanie Patel said she shares the spot with fellow Friends of the Parks board member Amanda Esper.
"I'll tell you what, Jim Arndt is phenomenal in putting us in our place," Melanie Patel said. "He has been very clear headed on on the direction that this needs to go. And he's very good about, you know, realizing what the capacity is and and where we have to stand up and we are we have to stand down."
Like in September 2019 when Melanie Patel sent the city manager and mayor an email after the first design meeting. She wrote: "I realize the money sink it seems to be and I respect your goal of wanting to cater to all. I do however feel an obligation to express our concern.”
Their concern was not having a 50-meter pool. The city declined.
We asked the mayor if Friends of the Parks members were representative of the entire community.
"Some are interested in baseball, soccer, some are interested in basketball, volleyball, some are interested in swimming," Harless said. "And so that, to me, is a good representation of interests in the community.”
However, the group's bylaws limit its voting board to eight members — all, at least initially, involved because of the pool.
I asked Melanie Patel what would she say to someone who watches this story and says there's a group of people who are more well off and had too much influence.
She replied, "I say my ultimate goal is for the community. This is not about me. This is more about providing something for everyone than providing for the rich."
As this process has continued, Patel said they’ve conceded some of their wants for the community's needs.
"I think this is sparking everything to happen. So it's turned into, for me, to just get a pool to cement the pool team to 'Oh my gosh, we might be getting new ball fields," Shiraz Patel said. "I hope we can get past all this. I think we have to do it. It will be well worthwhile."
As reflected in the many emails we’ve reviewed, the Patels have been very clear with the city about why Friends of the Parks was formed and the group’s mission to have a facility for competitive youth swimming.
As it stands now, even if Friends of the Parks contributes a $10-million endowment, the proposed center will operate at a deficit of hundreds of thousands of dollars for years. In order for the city to get out of debt in five years, as the city's consultants projected, it is wholly dependent on the accuracy of the assumptions the consultants made. That consulting firm is SFA, The Sports Facilities Advisory. A sister company, SFM, Sports Facilities Management, develops and manages facilities around the country.
As Harless said in an email to all four city commissioners and Arndt on June 27, 2019, “The truth of the matter is, even with new tax revenue, we won’t know what we don’t know until the dollars start flowing and the expenses start occurring. We can make really good estimates, but my biggest fear is to take this risk and leave taxpayers footing the bill! This is why I advocated strongly to get the Friends of the Parks started.”
To see Part I of this story, click on the article below.
Last December, Local 6 filed open records requests to trace the development of the project. The project is now an issue in city elections, with questions about city priorities, financial decisions, consultants and transparency, raised particularly by candidates opposing Mayor Brandi Harless.