Racial tensions erupt as Leesburg commissioners spar over building purchase

Emotions ran raw and undercurrents of racial tension could be felt Monday night before Leesburg commissioners agreed to purchase the old Knights of Columbus building on Griffin Avenue.

The City Commission agreed to pay $225,000 for the structure, which had been reduced in price because a building inspection showed it needed extensive work in several areas. City Manager Al Minner said those repairs should cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000.

Leesburg commissioners agreed to purchase the old Knights of Columbus building for $225,000 at Monday night’s meeting.

While commissioners were unanimous in their decision to purchase the building, located at 2116 Griffin Road, the contentious path to get there that started last month and continued Monday night had several commissioners on the edge of their seats.

Leesburg Commissioner Elise Dennison

Commissioner Elise Dennison had demanded a thorough building inspection in December before she would approve the purchase. Commissioner Jay Hurley told Minner that $50,000 wouldn’t be enough to repair the building, then got visibly upset with the city manager because he had provided a schedule of groups that had expressed an interest in using the building to provide programs for children.

Minner said he had been told by the commission to come back with the building report and possible uses for the building at a December commission meeting. Mayor John Christian and Commissioner Dan Robuck III, who was serving as mayor at the time, both backed Minner up on the direction he was given.

“What you see is not in stone,” Minner said of the list, which included groups that provide classes on everything from sewing to photography to cooking to dance to kitchen skills to boxing. “But this is how we could use the facility. That’s how I understood the commission’s direction.”

“Well, I think you misunderstood the commission’s direction,” Hurley said. “Nobody said go out and find who would like to use this thing for free. We talked about different things that the city could use this building for.”

Hurley said he also was upset because he has an interest in working with the Boys and Girls Club to use the building. A former board member of that organization, Hurley said the club had at one time expressed interest in purchasing the building and then wanted to spend money to refurbish it and partner with the city to use the facility.

“So I don’t know how this got ramrodded like this,” Hurley said.

Leesburg Commissioner Jay Hurley

Hurley also mentioned the city’s resource center, which is nearby in the Carver Heights area, and then questioned how many facilities are needed in that area of the city.

“We’re going to have nine buildings over there for the same 15 groups to use, and I don’t understand that,” he said. “How many things are we going to build over there, in the Carver Heights area, on the far west side of our town, to do the same 10 things?”

That prompted Christian to point out that the building had been for sale for quite some time, so the Boys and Girls Club had every opportunity to purchase it. He also reminded Hurley that both he and former Commissioner Bob Bone had expressed a desire to provide programs other than basketball and football for children living in the city. He said that leaders in the Carver Heights community had expressed interest many times in providing those programs. And he said the Knights of Columbus building sits in the perfect place to accomplish that goal.

Christian also made reference to the building being available to provide programs for all children in Leesburg, not just those in “that” side of town in the Carver Heights area.

“Don’t try to get smart, John,” Hurley snapped.

“I’m repeating what you said,” Christian fired back.

“I can say that any time I want to, because that’s the west side of town, and that’s the east side of town,” Hurley said, pointing in different directions.

Leesburg Mayor John Christian

Christian then told Hurley that he didn’t appreciate him interrupting him when he spoke. The two went back and forth for a few more seconds, with Christian continuing on to explain that he appreciates it when neighborhoods come together to tell the commission what’s needed.

“Our job is to find a way in our budget to make those things happen, whether it’s in Carver Heights or Venetian Gardens,” he said.

The racial issue was fueled even further during the public comment period of the meeting when Don Lukich came to microphone. The Leesburg resident who ran against Robuck in this past November’s election and recently was booted off the city’s planning and zoning board, also questioned the need for a building in the Carver Heights area.

“I’m not opposed to spending money, but how come we’re always spending money in the minority communities?” he asked. “To have a building, a teen center or a Boys and Girls Club, why don’t we centrally locate it where it’s more accessible to the entire community Because let’s face it, in these days and times, there’s a lot of people who won’t go into the minority community.”

Leesburg City Manager Al Minner said the old Knights of Columbus building at 2116 Griffin Road will need about $50,000 worth of work.

Conswello Ibe, founder of the Darling Diamonds group that hopes to use the new facility to teach children sewing, photography, art and cooking, assured Lukich and everyone in the audience that her programs and those that could be conducted at the new building are open to all children, regardless of race.

“I really kind of took that as a slap in the face,” she said of Lukich’s comments. “Because nothing we do in our area is just for African-American children.”

After commissioners had unanimously approved the purchase of the building, both Robuck and Christian agreed that the comments made by Lukich and the undertone of racial issues connected with the building were disheartening.

“Can you imagine if each one of these groups touched 40 kids each, what kind of difference it would make in our high schools and our middle schools,” Christian said. “We’ve got people saying I want to help Leesburg without saying give me some money. It’s going to be great and it’s going to change lives.”