Three children watch the sun set over Watertown during the Orchestra of Northern New York Independence Day performance in July 2019 at Thompson Park. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — City officials will hold off until next year to apply for a federal Department of Defense grant to build an amphitheater at Thompson Park after surprising Watertown Family YMCA officials with an announcement that it could compete for the same federal funding as the YMCA’s community center project.

In a surprise move Monday night, the City Council agreed to apply for funding to create the amphitheater at the park by seeking money that the YMCA also was pursuing, causing concern that the projects would compete for the same dollars.

In reversing his decision less than 24 hours later, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said the city would wait a year before pursuing the DOD funding, which is aimed at improving the quality of life for soldiers and their families.

On Tuesday, Mayor Smith received a blistering email from YMCA board President Keith B. Caughlin that accused the city of “trying to submarine” the $16.7 million YMCA project, a charge that the mayor denied.

“We were just trying to improve our community and make it better,” he said late Tuesday afternoon, adding that he was in the process of calling council members to tell them it would be better to apply next year for the funding.

The mayor also denied he wasn’t pressured by YMCA officials to change his mind about the DOD grant, stressing it would just be in the best interest of the community to wait until next year.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said she agreed with the mayor’s decision to hold off until next year.

“That way is better for the community and not have to worry about competing with the Y,” she said.

Contending that he had done his homework, Mayor Smith said there was nothing to prohibit a community from applying for money for two separate projects and that both could receive funding. He also said that Fort Drum officials had no qualms supporting both projects.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Smith met with Planning Department staff to start working on what would have been the city’s application. Over the weekend, the mayor began working on the city’s strategy.

The city considered seeking about $2.5 million to $3 million for the amphitheater, which would feature a stage and band shell and would utilize the natural slope of the ground for spectator seating. The facility would be utilized for events such as the July 4th Concert in the Park, concerts and other performances.

The DOD funding would be appropriated through the DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment under the Community Infrastructure Pilot program, which is aimed at improving quality of life for military families.

Mayor Smith said he learned about the DOD program through his friend, former Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr., who now serves as Fort Drum’s civilian aide.

Neither was aware that the YMCA also was interested in applying for funding from the same program when they learned about the DOD program a while back, he said.

At the beginning on Monday night’s council meeting, the resolution for the application was distributed to the other council members and put together by city staff earlier in the day. The information, however, wasn’t provided to the public or the media beforehand.

While she expressed confidence in the Y’s application, Watertown YMCA CEO Denise K. Young said she was happy to hear the mayor had a change in heart about applying.

“We’re very grateful for the mayor and the council for their support of our project,” she said.

Mrs. Young said that the Y will have a strong application “that fills all the boxes.”

The application is due June 26.

Advocate Drum, formerly the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, heard about the federal grant program, which is intended to improve military families and suggested the YMCA apply for the funding for its project.

Located in the former Concentrix call center on Arsenal Street, the YMCA community center would consist of a six-lane lap pool, a separate full-size recreational pool, three exercise rooms, an arts/multipurpose room, two indoor tennis courts and a community kitchen.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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