by Dennis Dalman
What amenities should a Sartell Community Center include?
That big question is still being asked by the Sartell City Council after receiving voluminous input from interest groups in the city.
At a special meeting held June 22, differences of opinion surfaced among council members, although by the end of the two-hour meeting a vague kind of consensus emerged: the center should cost about $10 million in regional half-cent sales-tax revenues, and that cost should include all “soft” costs and interest on a bond issue. A center should include a senior center, a branch library, community meeting rooms and some recreational resources. It should be built as soon as possible (say, in the summer of 2016), and an option might be to build some recreational amenities (such as at the Bernick’s Arena location) and a separate center somewhere else, perhaps as an addition to the city-hall building. All amenities in the center should be built with room for future expansion, and many of the amenities mentioned in input sessions might be able to be added in some Phase II project years from now.
That overall consensus, however, is vague and nothing is written in stone yet. However, the council felt compelled to come to at least some kind of agreement so the center planners would have some parameters in which to work.
Those planners were at the June 22 meeting. They are Murray Mack, project architect; Bob Strack, construction manager; and Lyle Mathiasen, operations manager. Those three were appointed to plan and oversee the project, based on city input, several months ago.
Mack outlined the project so far for the council. In recent weeks, the three planners and the city council have received feedback from interest groups in the city that include a wide variety of wish-list wants. The planners considered input from at least 50 people in the various groups.
Construction manager Strack emphasized no group they met with tried to push items on their wish lists, that they were very respectful and courteous about the needs mentioned by other groups. There was no divisiveness, and the process was very democratic, he added.
Mack listed what the groups said they would like to have: an extra sheet of skating ice, four gyms, a hockey ice, a walking track, public meeting spaces, a branch library, a senior center, storage spaces for groups such as a farmers’ market, the historical society and the American Legion.
Most groups said a center should promote involvement by people of all age groups, with lots of shared-use space. It should be on a bus line and easy to access for all residents. Partnerships for amenities with private groups or the school district should be considered. Before a center is built, everyone must be told of how much it will cost to maintain and operate, as well as all costs in addition to the actual construction of the building or buildings.
Sartell has been considering a city community center at least since 1994, but the more the council discussed it, the more the dream seemed to recede.
Residents took community surveys in which a library, community center and public meeting spaces always headed the list of priorities. A facilities committee was appointed about two years go, but its members decided any and all recommendations should be delayed until it would be known if Sartell residents would agree to extending the regional half-cent sales tax for another 20 years, through 2038.
That extension was approved by voters in November 2014.
About a decade ago, the Sartell City Council helped build the Bernick’s Hockey Arena with a mixture of private funds, volunteer labor and money from the regional half-cent sales tax. That project was considered at the time Phase I of a community center project. But movement on a center stalled again and again.
Finally, about a year ago, a comprehensive time frame was developed and a schedule determined, step by step, calling for construction to begin in the summer of 2016.
The city has already allocated $1.6 million in sales-tax money for a center. The rest would come through a bonding issue, with the money to be paid back from future annual sales-tax revenue to the city.
During the life of the sales-tax extension, the city could see as much as $39 million in revenue, said Sartell City Administrator Mary Degiovanni. A general target number for a center has been one that would cost $12 million or $13 million. That amount, however, was reduced to “about” $10 million at the June 22 council meeting when several members (most forcefully Pat Lynch, David Peterson and Amy Braig-Lindstrom) said the council should definitely leave sales-tax revenues for future city councils to spend on future needs that are bound to come 15 or 20 years down the road.
Mack told the council a $10-million cap, however, would leave only about $5 million for actual construction after all other “soft” costs are taken into account. That amount, he said, would almost guarantee a center could have no recreational amenities, such as the four gyms.
“The gym space would be the first to go,” he said.
To include all or most of amenities mentioned thus far would probably cost $13 to $15 million, Mack noted. The plans for such a building would include about 33,000 square feet for recreational resources and about 12,000 square feet for a senior center, branch library and other needs, according to the Mack-Strack estimates.
Rec. vs. other needs
The council seemed to be split about how much recreational needs should be added to a center.
Council member Steve Hennes, for example, said flatly the center should not contain much in the way of gyms or a field house with four gyms. From the beginning, he said, residents did not mention gyms as part of a community center. Field houses would better be built in relation to schools, with schools bonding for those needs, Hennes said.
“Let’s get built what we planned 15 years ago,” he added.
Hennes did agree maybe two multi-purpose gyms could be part of a center and perhaps more added in the future, but at this time he said he favors building a senior center, branch library and non-recreational facilities first and foremost.
Other council members, too, took issue with the amount of space proposed for recreational purposes. That brought up a discussion about the two-phased center approach. Some said perhaps a senior center or library could be built as an addition to city hall, and then recreational amenities built as an extension on the Bernick’s Arena. That option, most council members agreed, should at least be considered, even though council members noted most people, including them, have favored and continue to favor a multi-use community center “under one roof.”
Other council members, too, seemed to dislike the idea of too much recreational space, but most of them wavered this way or that as the meeting progressed. Braig-Lindstrom, for instance, said she is not prepared to support an extravagant “Taj Mahal” center and believes a center should be built for $10 million, but later, after planners said such a building would be lacking in many requested amenities, she seemed to waver and said maybe she’d be in favor of a building costing a little more.
Braig-Lindstrom also questioned why only recreational groups were invited to an April 22 public meeting at city hall. Other groups (Lions, Rotary, Farmers’ Market and more), she said, were not invited to that input meeting. Maybe, she suggested, that is why in recent weeks the center project has been hearing so much about recreational needs.
Sartell City Administrator Mary Degiovanni said the many recreational groups in the city were invited because it was important the city hear about their needs and wants. Those groups and others, she added, have never tried to dictate what should be in a community center.
Would a center generate maintenance and operational costs through possible user fees or revenue brought in if various tournaments and other events were held there?
That is a big unknown, and the planners and council members said they should not count on that as a definite revenue source while planning the building.
Where to build?
Several council members, most notably Amy Braig-Lindstrom, said it’s imperative the city soon decide where the center will be constructed. Residents and planners will have to know that before other plans can proceed.
Mack said several land parcels owned by the city are available, such as Pinecone Regional Park, but that optimal soil conditions are crucial and could add greatly to the cost of a project if they are not ideal.
No to pool
Council members seemed not to favor a pool or outdoor aquatics feature at the center unless it could be realized at a later date.
They noted there is one planned in St. Cloud, a partnership between the YMCA and the city using sales-tax revenue to build it.
Council member David Peterson said the entire issue is a complicated one.
“It is what it is,” he said.
But he said the city must move forward by adding this or cutting that and by meeting as often as possible to get the center moving forward.
The other council members seemed to agree after years of delays, indecision and stalling, it’s time to build a center no later than 2016.
More public meetings about the center will be announced, and more public input is always welcome.