When Mandy Millam stands in the middle of Gainesville’s old Army Reserve property, knee-high weeds capped with snow white flowers surrounding her, she does not see a property in shambles. She does not see the chain-linked fences, the old shed, the lonely pavilion or the cracked parking lots.
She sees opportunity.
The old red brick C.R. Layton Army Reserve sits along NE Eighth Avenue, left behind while the neighborhood has grown around it. Eventually, ownership of the property will be transferred from the Army to the City of Gainesville.
Millam can walk to the old reserve from her house. The opportunity she sees would totally transform the overgrown 6.8 acres. She envisions a path that would weave through barbecue grills, a playground, a basketball court and a community garden space. She wants to create a memorial to the reservists who spent time there.
“Worst-case scenario is that it gets sold to be another condo or apartment complex,” she said.
No one has used the armory since 2009.
Millam is the president of Friends of Reserve Park, a community group she helped start almost two years ago. The group’s goal has been to reach out to people in Gainesville to develop a plan for the future of the old reserve. On Saturday, the group will host a Veterans Day Picnic on the property to solicit ideas from the community.
“We’ve been polling and surveying a lot to get an idea of what the community wants and thinks should happen to this property,” Millam said. “We want to see a community collaboration to benefit all of us.”
In 1950, the city handed over the property at 1125 NE Eighth Ave. to the federal government with the understanding that it would be returned when it was no longer needed. Three years later, the reserve was built. Totaling more than 35,000 square feet, it holds several administrative offices, an indoor firing range and a cavernous drill hall.
For several decades, Army reservists lived on the property. In 2011, the Army notified the city of a new reserve to be constructed across the street, leaving the old one for the city to keep.
Friends of Reserve Park secretary Michael Selvester said the group started two years ago to gather public opinion without pushing its own agenda too much. He now believes the group has a fair understanding of what the community would like to see happen.
“When we get the neighborhood involved, we can be active and engaged,” he said. “The possibilities are limitless.”
Taking over the reserve, however, is more complicated than signing a contract.
Assistant City Manager Paul Folkers said the city has budgeted $28,000 for a one-time cleanup of the grounds and $20,000 annually to maintain the building and prevent further deterioration. The city’s Capital Improvement Plan has budgeted $160,000 toward the remediation of asbestos. The study found lead paint, mold and asbestos in the building’s pipes and tiles.
Folkers said the Army has offered to encapsulate the pipes, or wrap them to contain the asbestos, before sending in its notice of reversion. Estimates for remediation of the asbestos total more than $350,000.
“We’d hoped to see the Army completely remove the asbestos, not just encapsulate,” he said. “But I think they feel legally required to do something about it. We don’t yet know when that will be done.”
City Commissioner Craig Carter said he loves the enthusiasm, passion and energy the Friends of Reserve Park are bringing to the project.
However, the building would need adjustments made to its bathrooms, including adding railings, ramps and elevators to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The roof will also need replacing in the next five to eight years.
The cost of it troubles Carter, and he said dealing with the asbestos in the pipes is “like putting a water droplet on a burning fire.”
Carter suggested that, in the end, it may be easier to demolish the building. He says using it to commemorate veterans is a noble cause, but he wonders if the city needs a 35,000-square-foot building to do so.
“Someone is going to have to pay the bills,” he said. “The city has a responsibility to fund and sustain projects like this. But if we said ‘yes’ to everything, no one could afford to live here.”
He admires Millam’s efforts to shape the future of the grounds — he just wants people to “know what they’re getting into.” Without seeing all the options, he said he cannot make a concrete decision and wants more members of the community to get involved and provide input.
Millam and Selvester said the building is not their primary concern at the moment. Their focus now is to spread the word about the property and the ideas they have.
At the picnic, they’ll provide food, music, games and prizes. There will also be a ceremony to honor the veterans who served at the reserve. Millam said she is hoping to get local veterans’ groups involved, too.
Where others only see decay, Millam sees beauty and the opportunity to create. She said she will do what it takes to give the reserve new life.
“We want the city to have trouble dislodging us,” Millam said. “We’ll be the people screaming, but we’ll be screaming nice things.”