Council says no to new gym; demolition of old gym moves forward


(Posted Dec. 27, 2022)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

The city of London will not be building a new gymnasium for youth sports but is moving forward with demolition of the building currently used for those programs.

City administrators opened bids for the demolition on Dec. 14. From the seven bids submitted, they chose to contract with International Excavating of Ohio. The Canfield, Ohio, company’s bid was $419,500.

In early 2022, the Ohio Department of Development awarded the city a $461,400 grant to tear down the gymnasium, the former school attached to the gym, and the accompanying boiler building. Plaster is falling from the gym’s interior walls, bricks are falling from the building’s exterior walls, and the school has sat vacant for years.

According to Rex Henry, London’s safety service director, the city will hold a pre-demolition planning meeting with International Excavating in early January. Demolition is slated to start on Jan. 31. Per the contract, the work will be done by April 1. The grant requires the work to be done by May 1. In addition to the building demolition, the city will have the sidewalks around the building removed and replaced at an added expense.

The city’s youth basketball program will finish out its 2022-23 season in the old gym. The season wraps up on Jan. 14 with championship games, after which the gym will no longer be used.

In May 2022, London voters turned down a levy request that included funds for construction of a new community center. With increased participation in youth sports and ongoing decay of the current gym, city administrators proposed issuing a $3 million bond to finance construction of a steel building for a new city gym.

In the time since the gym proposal was announced in September, much discussion has taken place among city officials and residents.

Mayor Patrick Closser pushed for the new gym as a way to continue youth basketaball and volleyball programs in a safe environment. He wanted to get the ball rolling quickly in order to take advantage of the Ohio Department of Development demolition grant before the May 1, 2023, deadline.

At recent council meetings, residents spoke out for and against the gym proposal. E-mails and letters from concerned individuals were read at the meetings, as well.

Many of those who spoke in favor of building the gym said youth sports provide children with a way to socialize with other children and build confidence, skills, and relationships with positive role models.

“London’s children need to socialize, be active, receive organized physical education, exercise regularly, and learn to compete to be successful in life,” wrote resident Juliet Wendler in an email read at the Dec. 1 council meeting. London needs recreational facilities to promote children’s growth and growth of the community, she added.

Stephanie Mack, a lifelong London resident, participated in youth sports as a child and has a daughter who now does the same. In an email to Closser, she said overcrowding is already an issue for London’s youth sports programs and that the city might one day need multiple facilities to house indoor programs. She urged council to move forward with the gym proposal.

As for other needs in the city, Mack stated, “I believe the city of London is capable of addressing multiple challenges around the town at the same time.”

Many of those who spoke against the gym proposal said the city has more pressing issues to attend to and spend money on, including funding the fire/EMS department, fixing water and stormwater issues, and building new police facilities.

Andrea Dillion, a London resident and realtor, spoke at several council meetings, stating she is 100 percent in favor of a new recreation center that offers a wide array of programs and services, but priority should be given to the city’s infrastructure issues.

“How much more can the citizens of London be asked to finance? We are in a recession, inflation is at its highest in 15 years, people are getting laid off work, and 2023 isn’t looking much better,” she said at the Dec. 15 meeting.

“What is being presented and voted on tonight is not a rec center. It is a gymnasium at a cost much too high considering the more immediate needs,” she said.

Council President Henry Comer said residents deserve more than “a pole barn with basketball hoops in it.” He’d rather see the city take one or two years to put together a plan for a community center with more amenities, such as a pool, and then put the proposal to the voters.

Gym proposal voted down
In the end, on Dec. 15, council voted 4-2 against each of two resolutions that would have moved the gym project forward. One involved the city partnering with Madison County Future Inc., the county’s non-profit community improvement corporation (CIC). The plan was to run the project through the CIC to bypass the bidding process, prevailing wage costs, and sales tax costs on materials. The agreement would have saved time and money, Closser said. The other resolution called for issuance of a $3 million bond to finance the project. Council members Greg Eades, Rich Hays, Joshua Peters, and John Stahl voted “no” on both resolutions. Council members Andy Hitt and Bryan Robinson voted “yes” on both resolutions.

“I want a rec center as much as anybody does,” Hays said after the votes. “Kids are the future, but… you gotta have sewer, water, police, and fire. If you have that, then things will come.”

Robinson said he was disappointed that the gym isn’t going to happen, but said he understands others’ reservations about it.
“Just, hopefully, it doesn’t put us back too far,” he said.

Finding gym time
Closser said he respected council’s decision and holds no ill will toward anyone regarding the issue.

“The biggest thing is we need to figure out how to keep these sports going. I am asking (council) to help us with that process,” he said. “This is going to be kind of an all-hands-on-deck to get this thing figured out for the future. My focus is on the kids and the youth… and where they’re going to play. I have no probem with you not liking my plan, but I want to give kids the outlet they need.”

The city’s parks and recreation director, Landon McKenzie, has been in touch with London City Schools about using their gym space for city youth sports programs. Residents have suggested the city also reach out to St. Patrick School and local churches that have gym space.

Closser said such partnerships would be great, but they come with challenges. The parks and recreation department employs two people; overseeing practices at multiple locations would require more staffing. Gym time would not be guaranteed as priority would go to the gym host’s teams. Practice time also could be later in the evening than is desirable to work around the host’s schedule, he said.

“We are continuing to look at different avenues and different partnerships to make sure we can keep youth athletics going in London,” Closser said, adding that city leaders are always looking for grant opportunities, as well.


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