Melvin Dodge is a man who knows what he is about. As director of recreation and parks for 25 years, he has been catering to the leisure needs of the citizens in the Ohio capital from the volleyball court to the kiln.

Since 1971, Dodge had been trying to build a new arts and crafts center to replace the inadequate, old facility on Oak Street here that had been housed in turn-of-the-century firehouse. The money just wasn't available.

But the recession of 1975 - the undoing of the dreams of so many Americans who found themselves on the unemployment rosters for the first time in their lives - provided the climate that led to the fulfillment of at least one of Dodge's.

For Congress, in seeking ways to put people back to work quickly, voted a total of $6 billion to go to local communities to build public works projects that could be started quickly. Columbus was ready with a proposal and, on Christmas Eve 1976, the city received approval from the Commerce Department for a $1.37 million grant to restore the old Ohio State arsenal (which Dodge long before had convinced the state to rent to the city at $1 a year for 99 years) and transform it into an arts and crafts center.

Last Sunday, two and a half years after the city began to renovate the arsenal and a year and a half after the federal government gave its go-ahead, the building was formally dedicated.

The total cost of the renovation was $1.74 million, with all but about $400,000 coming from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration.

"We certainly have a quality project we're proud of, but if you ask me if that's the best way to spend the government's money to create jobs, I have to answer 'I don't know.' I think that is a national question to which nobody knows the answer," Columbus Mayor Tom Moody conceded.

But from our perspective, once Congress adopted the policy, we found we were able to do something of value we would otherwise not have been able to have done.Whether it created a lot of new jobs, I don't know. I have a suspicion it kept a lot of people from being laid off," the mayor said.

Dodge, Jon and Norman Altman, who head the Altman-Coady construction firm that coordinated the renovation, and James Bond and Jesse Carter, who found work on the project, don't share those reservations.

And neither do weaving instructor John Wahling, sculpture teacher Jim Mason and restoration specialist Larrilyn Edwards who are but a few of the dozens of Columbus cultural employes who spent days and weeks planning, decorating and organizing the transformed arsenal. They will be teaching, sculpting and weaving for years after Bond, foreman for the plumbing subcontractor on the project, and Carter, a laborer with Altman-Coady, picked up their last paycheck and moved on.

But critics of the so-called accelerated public works projects - Congress passed two round of them, one for $2 billion in 1976 and another for $4 billion in 1977 - contend that, although the program may produce worthwhile community projects, as in the case of Columbus, building public works is an expensive way to go provide jobs in a recession. They also complain that public works projects only help construction workers for the most part (although they concede that construction workers were hit hard in the last recession).

Other programs such as public service jobs aim to help the lesser-skilled individuals who are jobless, however, although many city officials, including Columbus' director of economic development, Phillip Lomax, tend to sneer at such programs as "make-work." (Lomax's department has snared a total of $13 million of antirecession public works money. Besides the arsenal renovation, Columbus is building five sports complexes for Dodge's recreation department, has reconstructed a downtown alley lined with boutiques and other small retail establishments).

The Columbus arsenal is a case in point of the high cost of creating a job.

Jon Altman, secretary-treasurer of Altman Coady, said it is hard to be sure how many persons found work on the project. His brother Norman, who is vice president, said the firm's payroll records indicate that about 12 man-years of labor were provided directly by Altman-Coady (in all, about 35 Altman-Coady employes worked at some time on the project). He calculates that it costs about $18,000 in wages and benefits to pay a construction worker, and said the wage bill for the firm's portion of the project was $212,000 (materials consumed another $185,000).

Jon Altman said it is difficult to be sure how many man-years were provided by subcontractors (from plumbing to electrical to landscaping," he said.

Altman-Coady, a middle-sized, family firm that does between $5 million and $6 million a year in business, laid out $635,000 to subcontractors.

Using the most liberal calculations, if subcontractors provided the equivalent of 25 man-years of labor and Altman-Coady provided 12, the 37 full-time jobs created by the Commerce Department's $1.37 million grant cost $37,000 a job. That is more than three times what a public service job costs to create, although construction workers are much better paid than leaf rakers or maintenance men, the kinds of jobs that public service funds create.

That contrasts with the $14,000 it cost the State of Ohio to build the original arsenal in 1861, using convict labor.

Jerry Hammond, chairman of the Columbus City Council's committee on development, agrees that public works money, at least viewed narrowly, is an expensive way to provide recession-fighting jobs and, because of tensions with "contractors, unions, etc., who seek to provide work for their own people, the projects mitigate against providing work for the chronically unemployed."

President Carter has proposed a new, $1 billion-a-year, labor-intensive public works program designed to combat some of those criticisms. The proposal would require that 80 percent of the funds expended be for wages and benefits, and would try to insure that those who are hired are unskilled, so-called hard-core unemployed.

Neither Hammond, Moddy nor Lomax say they have had the time to evaluate the president's proposal.

But both Hammond, a Democrat, and Moody, a Republican who is also president of the National League of Cities, caution against evaluating the current public works program too narrowly.

The arsenal, located on the west end of Columbus's downtown district overlooking the Scioto River, already generating private development interest in an area that Moody calls "a nonpeople ceenter at the present time."

John Galbreath, a Columbus developer who, among other things, owns the Pittsburgh Pirates, is considering building downtown garden apartments adjacent to the arsenal-arts center, Moody said. Such a building would attract small shops and boutiques to the area providing the very types of jobs that are suited to those with low skills, Hammond said.

Even if the arsenal project fails to spark any private investment in the area, recreation director Dodge notes that it has cleaned up the neighborhood by example. The Junior Arts League building across the street has manicured its once ill-kempt lawn.