By Richard Sullins |

The Sanford City Council on Tuesday adopted a measure proposed by Councilman Charles Taylor to charge Downtown Sanford Inc. for use of the city’s Depot Park for the various free events it hosts throughout the year.

The 5-1 vote, with only Democratic Councilwoman Linda Rhodes against, means DSI will have to pay the city of Sanford – from which it derives all its authority and the majority of its funding – $450 per event at the city owned park, potentially leading to an annual increase of $6,000 in spending for the city created and funded nonprofit group which exists to promote events, redevelopment and economic activity downtown.

During a presentation from City Parks Administrator Nick Fortune Tuesday about changes in how DSI could broaden its outreach to the greater Sanford community, Taylor, the council’s lone Republican, said he didn’t think the nonprofit should be able to use Depot Park for free.

Usage of Depot Park has seen a spike recently in the number of people who come downtown for the day or evening and spend money in local restaurants and businesses. Many of the events drawing these visitors have been planned and executed by DSI, including the October 8 StreetFest & Fireworks event which drew an estimated 10,000 people downtown from as far away as Danville, Virginia, and an event on Oct. 16 celebrating the 150th anniversary of the historic Railroad House.

“At the end of the day, we want to be fair to all those who are involved,” Taylor said. “A couple of years ago, the county changed their fee structure so that there are no longer free rentals at county parks, whether that be churches or clubs or a political function. We need to treat these entities like we treat the golf course. We don’t need to provide services for free.”

Rhodes objected, noting the city gets all the credit for events that are organized and sponsored by DSI.

“Restaurants and merchants reported record foot traffic during StreetFest, and each of the 19 food trucks that were there ran out of food,” she said. “DSI does all the work, but it is the city that gets all the credit. And you are proposing that we start charging DSI to do events like this one and where we get all the credit?”

Taylor saw things differently.

“(DSI) are taking that vehicle that we gave them and have used that money wisely to make money off their events,” he said. “The city has a lot of skin in the game. We have provided the vehicle that has enabled their success and all I am saying is that DSI should provide a little gas money to run that vehicle. This park belongs to the people of Sanford and it’s up to us to maintain a level of quality in how it gets used.”

DSI Executive Director Kelli Laudate pushed back against Taylor’s characterization of the organization’s finances.

“We are a nonprofit group. We do not make money,” she said. “All our proceeds are plowed back into our ability to provide other events. DSI works hard to be able to provide events that our citizens can attend for free. You don’t have to pay to attend one of our concerts or festivals. We work hard to make quality of life events available free of charge and we will continue to work hard.”

Laudate said the change will cost DSI about $6,000 annually, but said the organization will seek new sponsors for its events instead of asking the people who attend them to pay for participating. Its only other recourse, she said, would be to seek an increase in that line item in the city’s appropriation next year when budget season rolls around.

Mayor Rebecca Wyhof Salmon at the same meeting stressed her unequivocal support of the city’s relationship with DSI and the value it brings downtown.

“We created DSI, and we fund it to provide the community with the type of programming that makes this city great,” she said. “It is a key component in moving forward with our strategic plan. They do just a phenomenal job in promoting what makes our city great. The proof is in the pudding as we have seen in the phenomenal successes of what we are seeing downtown. StreetFest was truly an extraordinary event and there were smiles everywhere. I have been very supportive of our partnership with DSI and continue to value what they contribute to this community.”

Tuesday’s discussion marked the second issue Taylor has taken with DSI in the past 90 days. At the July 19 public hearing on an issue relating to the placement of churches in nine blocks of downtown Sanford and Jonesboro, Taylor said the prohibition was “a gross overreach by DSI, who is not an enforcement mechanism. They are not here to enforce laws, bylaws, or statutes.”

That issue was also resolved Tuesday night, when the council voted to repeal a 20-plus year old ordinance which prohibited churches in those nine blocks. The prohibition was enacted in 1999 by the City Council, not DSI.

In any case, the decision ended a difference of opinions between some conservative churches and businesses that had been going on since the start of summer. At issue then was a conflict between the First Amendment rights of freedom to worship and assemble that seemed in opposition with the interests of business owners in the downtown area. Many of those merchants had put their life savings into their businesses and depended on having adequate parking available for use by their customers to keep those businesses thriving.

More than 150 people came to the council’s chambers in July to listen as a dozen speakers spoke in favor of lifting the ban on new churches being allowed to open up storefront operations in the downtown area. But fewer than 25 were on hand Tuesday when the final vote was taken that resulted in the removal of the ordinance’s prohibitions.

The only person to make comments on the matter Tuesday was Pastor Dale Sauls of Life Springs Church in Sanford. He took less than two minutes to thank the council “for showing the courage to reopen” the issue for discussion and asking those in the audience to show their appreciation through applause.

The action was more symbolic than substantive, however. Despite the restrictions enacted in 1999, a number of storefront churches had opened their doors over the years, and several exist in Jonesboro even today. The city has chosen not to enforce the ordinance because, among other reasons, its language is not specific as to its enforcement mechanisms.

The vote to repeal the ordinance was unanimous.