Making it personal: Two Walton commissioners, citizens pledge own money to renovations

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners steered county funds to projects aimed at preserving two local landmarks on Tuesday, with two commissioners pledging personal donations to one of those projects.

The personal largesse came from Commissioners Tony Anderson and Danny Glidewell, who each promised $500 to the ongoing effort to renovate the Tivoli Gym on Thomas Avenue in DeFuniak Springs. Built in 1960, the gym is the oldest such facility built initially to serve the area's Black population.

The Tivoli Gym is being reimagined by the Tivoli Historical Society as a basketball, volleyball and kickball complex that also will provide space for community meetings and for reading and math enrichment programs for school-age children, which already are underway with help from 20 retired teachers.

A look back: Nonprofit working to refurbish Tivoli gym

More CARES ACT projects:Walton County continuing to leverage CARES Act funding

Thus far, the county government, the Walton County School District and the St. Joe Co. development firm have contributed to the renovation project. The project got a significant infusion of money last year when commissioners allocated $150,000 of the county's share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the renovation effort.

In justifying that outlay, county administrators noted that the project would ensure that the facility could meet social distancing protocols then in effect in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. Administrators noted that the educational enrichment activities associated with the project also could help students keep up with their education as the pandemic affected their regular schooling.

People gathered for some of the initial work to renovate the Tivoli Gym in DeFuniak Springs. Two Walton County commissioners on Tuesday pledged personal funds for the renovation project and the county staff promised to help find funding to finish the work.

Since then, though, the Tivoli Historical Society's renovation efforts have been slowed by the rising cost of building materials. Those costs have been pushed up by a number of factors, including pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and increased demand for construction materials as pandemic-related restrictions are easing.

"In January, the cost of building material just shot up on us, and that put us in a real bind to complete the building," Eddie Williamson, president of the Tivoli Historical Society, told commissioners Tuesday. A loss of inmate labor for the project also slowed the work, Williamson added.

The immediate personal response from Glidewell and Anderson came after Suzanne Harris, president of the Edgewater condominium development in Miramar Beach, walked to the podium to promise Williamson a $1,000 check for the project. That gesture was followed by local real estate agent Jim Bagby, an Army retiree and former executive director of the Walton County Tourist Development Council, who pledged $500.

On the commission, Glidewell and Anderson were joined by Commissioner William "Boots" McCormick, whose request to steer $1,000 in his share of the county's recreational plat fee to the project was approved by the full commission.

Each commissioner receives funds for discretionary use through the fee, which is charged to developers who do not provide a percentage of residential subdivision property for recreational purposes.

Beyond those immediate donations, commissioners promised Williamson they would have the county staff look into the possibility of steering additional federal funding to the project.

"We'll get this done," Anderson told Williamson.

In other preservation-related action Tuesday, Anderson agreed to the use of his share of recreational plat fee funds to cover costs of repairing the Gum Creek Church, which was damaged by a tornado that swept through the northern parts of the county several weeks ago. The church has not been used as a place of worship for some time, serving instead now as a community gathering center.

From the archives: Tiny Gum Creek Cemetery holds lots of memories

The winds damaged the roof of the church and also were strong enough to topple some tombstones in the cemetery, according to Daniel Wilkerson, chairman of the Gum Creek Cemetery Trust. None of the funds coming to the trust from Anderson will be used for the cemetery because commissioners voiced concerns about steering public money to an arguably religious purpose.

In responding to a question from Anderson about directing his recreational plat fee money to the building, interim county counsel Clay Adkinson said, “I broadly think you can. ... We’re no longer looking at a church.” 

Wilkerson said the trust does not have sufficient resources to cover the repairs needed at the former church and the cemetery. He estimated the cost to repair the church at somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000, and said the trust will need professional help in resetting tombstones, work which some families of the departed are undertaking on their own.

"Some of the heaviest headstones in the cemetery were blown over,” Wilkerson said, calling the tornado "the worst disaster" in the history of the church and the cemetery.

Burials in the cemetery date back to 1852, and include veterans of a host of U.S. military conflicts, including both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War.

One of the older tombstones at the Gum Creek Cemetery near Glendale is seen in 2016.  The cemetery and its associated church were damaged during a recent tornado, and the Walton County Commission on Tuesday steered some county funds to repair of the old church, which is now used as a community center.

With community help in cleaning up after the tornado, which blew down a number of hickory trees, the cemetery was able to host this year's Memorial Day celebration, a longstanding local tradition.

In other property-related action at Tuesday's meeting, commissioners agreed — with Anderson casting the lone dissenting vote — to offer $3 million for the former Mojo Sportswear building on U.S. Highway 90 just outside the western edge of DeFuniak Springs. The offer will be contingent on an independent appraisal of the property and an inspection of the Mojo facility by an entity outside of the county government.

Glidewell, who proposed pursuing a potential purchase of the property, noted that it would fit perfectly with the county's need to expand its public works facility, currently located in a complex of buildings adjacent to the old Mojo facility.

In advance of the vote, Adkinson told commissioners that any eventual purchase of the property would require that the commission go through its established purchase procedures. Tuesday's action, he explained, would simply put the county first in line among potential purchasers of the tract.

More from the commission:Walton County approves $2.3 million land purchase for Grayton Beach public restroom

Anderson agreed that the building would be a good location for expanding the public works facilities, but was concerned about the potential acquisition process, saying before his vote that “even if it’s legal, we might be setting a very bad precedent ... ."

Tuesday's move also got some criticism, with Bagby and Barbara Morano, a South Walton resident who is active in local government affairs, contending that the public had not been made adequately aware of the commission's plans to pursuing a potential purchase of the property.

Also Tuesday, commissioners approved an advertisement of the county's intent to sell a 22-acre tract in the Mossy Head Industrial Park for $440,000. Final action on the proposed sale, which would bring Birmingham-based heavy equipment dealer Thompson Tractor Company and two dozen employees to Walton County, will be taken by the commission next month.