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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Win-Win for Walnut Hills Academy and City of Cold Spring

 By Robin Gee, City Council Beat Editor

Cold Spring residents received welcome news at a special city council meeting this week that a deal had been struck to keep a beloved preschool center in operation – and fund a new building to house its growing police department.

The announcement of the agreement came after a week-long saga of misunderstanding and alarm about what appeared to some as a sudden decision by the city not to renew the lease for the Walnut Hills Academy. The center had been in operation at 5696 East Alexandria Pike and serves about 110 area children.

On March 12, the owner of the center, Beth Sparks, sent a letter to parents informing them the center would be closing at the end of June due to nonrenewal of the lease.

Alarmed parents started a petition to keep the center open. Parent Amy Danzon, who had organized the petition, outlined the importance of the center to the community. “Walnut Hills Academy is a trusted, valued, and educationally-rich early childhood center in Cold Spring, KY. For over 25 years, it has provided early childhood education to Cold Spring and surrounding cities. From daycare to preschool, and even after-school care, Walnut Hills Academy has served working parents and their children with upstanding values, education and love.”

Owner, Damon Sparks, addresses Cold Spring City Council as parents of Walnut Hills Academy looks on.

Behind the scenes

Cold Spring Mayor Angelo Penque said he received multiple calls and emails from concerned residents about the move. Important information had not been included in the letter, he said, and parents were under the impression that the nonrenewal was a sudden decision.

Documents then released by city officials showed the center had been informed in November 2017 of the decision not to renew the lease. Officials said they did not publicly disclose the lease terms or nonrenewal at the request of the owner. As is common practice, lease terms were discussed in a closed executive session of council.

"Because this is a private business, we did not want to hurt the business. The owner asked us not to put this out, and we respected her wishes," said the mayor. "On behalf of the city, I want to say we did everything we properly."

"We certainly acknowledge that we had a year and a half," explained owner Damon Sparks. "We had been talking about this for a year and a half but we’ve also been negotiating for a year and a half. It was a business decision."

He said they held back on informing parents and staff because negotiations were still underway and, they were hopeful a solution could be found. Yet, he admitted concern also that, once informed the center was closing, parents would begin to find other options, leaving the business in a position from which it might not be able bounce back.

Looking for a alternatives

City officials wanted to bring the police department, located about two-tenths of a mile away at 5589 E. Alexandria Pike, onto the same campus as the city government building, Penque explained.

"Safety has always been an issue," said City Attorney Brandon Voelker. "We do have city office staff sometimes taking money and there have been concerns. From a safety standpoint we have discussed that it would be good to get it all here on one campus."

He said there has been confusion about where the police department is and moving it to be with other city buildings would ensure easy access. It would also allow opportunities for coverage of police reception by other city employees. At present there is not a full-time person dedicated to cover the police department’s front desk.

The department is growing, he said, and is approaching maximum use of the space. Yet, another reason for the move appeared to be financial.

The city owns and maintains the building that houses Walnut Hills Academy but does not take in enough in rent to cover the costs associated with that. "The business is not paying rent at market value and so it is costing the city tax money to maintain," said Voelker.

Both Voelker and Penque said they had hoped to find an alternative that would suit the center’s needs, and recognized the vital role of the center and the concerns of parents.

 Finding a creative solution

Voelker explained that the mayor suggested they take a step back and look at the situation from the viewpoint of a property owner rather than a city government. "We thought, how could we make this work? So we reached out to Walnut Hills and, literally, have been in contact with them every day since."

The result was a creative solution all could embrace. The city wanted the police department on their campus, and there was room to build but no money to do so. The city residents and surrounding community relied on the preschool and did not want lose an important resource. Yet, the center had been paying below market value for rent.

The officials did the math and discovered that if the owners could agree to increase their rent payments, the additional monies raised could provide enough to build a new police building on the city campus without adding to the tax burden. The bonus would be a public safety staff close to other city buildings and also close to the preschool.

The owners agreed to the rent increase, and in return received a five-year lease ensuring that the location would remain a preschool for long time.

Sparks thanked city officials for working with him to find an answer. He also thanked the parents who had packed the room for the special session. "Your support over the past week has been overwhelming, emails and calls and can’t thank you guys enough. Also thanks to Beth and our employees for sticking through this. We know it’s been tough on them."
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