Reprinted with permission from The Republic newspaper, May 18, 2023

The city of Columbus is looking at appropriations for various pieces of NexusPark, although one Columbus City Council member is concerned about funding mechanisms for the project and what its overall cost will be.

The Columbus City Council has approved the first reading of an ordinance appropriating more than $3 million for expenses related to NexusPark. Councilwoman Elaine Hilber, D-District 2, was the sole vote against the action.

Ordinances must be passed on two readings for full approval, and the council’s next meeting is scheduled for June 6.

Hilber had a number of questions about a section of the ordinance that appropriates $2,036,500 from the city’s general fund.

“This is for our pledges that the Parks Foundation has received over the next seven years for the NexusPark project,” explained Parks Associate Director of Business Services Pam Harrell. “We want to be able to do the construction while we have a construction staff on hand, but these pledges are going all the way out to 2028 and 2029 to get reimbursed.”

Per the ordinance, “NexusPark is currently in construction and it would be much more economical and financially prudent to have the projects being paid for by the pledges from the donors to be completed by the contractors while the contractors are currently on site.”

Assuming the appropriation is approved, the parks foundation will pay back the city each January with pledges received during the prior year, said Harrell.

“If, for whatever reason, those pledges do not come through, how does that work?” asked Hilber.

“Well, I mean there’s always a chance of that, but we’re still getting donations, so we think that if any of them do not come through, we’re going to have others that’s going to replace those,” Harrell replied. “So I don’t think it will be a problem.”

Victoria Griffin, the Republican candidate for City Council District 2, was present at the council meeting and noted that market volatility might have an impact on the length of pledges made from stock. Harrell replied that such donors could potentially request extensions.

City Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon, who recently won the GOP nomination for mayor of Columbus, added that the large naming gifts are from businesses and are not stock gifts.

Harrell also said that the foundation has already received $1,298,000 in donations, whereas the approximately $2 million represents pledged donations that they will receive in the future.

Hilber then asked what this $2 million is intended to cover, given that the city has already committed several million dollars in bonds to NexusPark.

Harrell replied that a lot of these pledges are for naming rights for various parts of the facility.

“We have earmarked it in with the budget for the whole project, between the fieldhouse and the community center and Phase 1C, the outdoor project,” she said. “There’s certain pieces of this that the donors are donating the money towards for each area of the project.”

For example, Circle K has pledged donations for the fieldhouse, which will in turn be named after the company.

City officials indicated that there are certain parts of the project that the city had long planned to cover with donations.

“It was never going to cover it all,” said Councilman Frank Miller, talking about the bonds.

Harrell said that fundraising goal was $4 million, and the city has raised $3,499,000 so far, when pledges are counted.

Hilber also expressed concern about how costs are adding up for NexusPark, saying that the council is expected to consider a $5 million request related to the project in June.

“That’s going to be for FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment), and material costs have skyrocketed since this project started,” said Harrell.

Ferdon said that the city does not have a final cost for NexusPark. This is due, in part, to the fact that construction costs have increased significantly since the project began.

“And so what we have spent the last couple years doing is working with the architects,” she said. “With the donations that we’ve got — and we’re close to the $4 million pledged — we’re able to do more than we had hoped that we could do, because we had to back off a lot, just because our construction costs went up. So we’re doing a lot of what is called value engineering event today. And you’re right, we will come back to city council for a request sometime later this summer … but we’re continually reducing that.”

She expects that they’ll have “better numbers” to share by July.

During the 2023 State of the City in March, Ferdon said that various entities have invested roughly $100 million into NexusPark. This included more than $50 million from Columbus Regional Health, almost $40 million from the city and the Columbus Redevelopment Commission (with more to come), $1 million from the American Rescue Plan, $6 million from the state’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, and $4.3 million in private donations.

NexusPark is a joint effort between the city of Columbus and CRH to transform the former FairOaks Mall into a health, wellness and recreation center. The campus is expected to include a fieldhouse, parks department and community spaces, restaurant and retail areas and CRH facilities.

Outdoor community park and gathering spaces are planned, and Dunham’s is expected to remain on-site under its current lease.

In addition to the $2 million to cover work funded by donation pledges, the ordinance being considered by city council also included a $260,000 appropriation from the NexusPark fieldhouse fund to cover staffing costs for the fieldhouse.

According to Harrell, this includes the following allocations:

  • $179,250 for salaries
  • $25,000 for PERF
  • $14,000 for FICA
  • $41,750 for insurance

The ordinance also included a $750,000 appropriation from the Parks and Recreation General Fund to purchase furniture, fixtures and equipment for NexusPark.

“As we envisioned NexusPark, we went to parks and said, ‘You’re going to have to come up with some amount of money to help cover the FF&E or the turf, whatever,’” said Ferdon. “And it’s just going to go in a big pot. We can call it FF&E, but it’s going in a big pot.”