Douglas’ hypothetical new rec center has had a rough non-life. The potential new facility has narrowly missed making the ballot, then narrowly missed voter approval. It has been described as a community necessity by some, decried as an inappropriate expense by others.
New rec center fans hope the most recent proposal succeeds where others came up short.
On Monday, Douglas City Council discussed a proposed new memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the next iteration of proposed rec center. The proposed MOU addresses several concerns that arose in 2016.
Despite tweaks, some council members continued to express worries about the feasibility of the new project.
Key questions about the new rec center proposal remain unanswered, chiefly the price tag. While City Councilman Monty Gilbreath, who is also the Douglas Rec Center Director, has said that the facility and Glenrock Recreation Center renovation will cost in the tens of millions of dollars, there isn’t a hard figure. It could cost as much as $100 million, or come in dozens of millions below that $100 million mark.
HOW A NEW REC CENTER WOULD WORK
While the cost is a question mark, the operations at the new rec center would largely be covered, at least for the first few years.
According to Gilbreath, the rec board is willing to pay most of the operations costs at the new building, staff it (current rec center staff would move to the new center while keeping their jobs and benefits), provide tech support (through the school) and oversee bookkeeping. On top of that, furniture and equipment purchased with rec board funds would be moved to the new center.
The rec board would see to those needs in exchange for having the majority of control on the new Joint Powers board that would oversee the rec center.
The configuration of that Rec Center Joint Powers board is an unknown as well. It could be a nine-member board with five rec board members, and two representatives each from the city and county. The split could also be 4-3-2, or 5-3-1, with the county possibly interested in the 1. It could have seven members (3-2-2, 4-2-1). Rec center funding will be based on the Joint Powers board membership, with the three entities paying based on their number of seats.
In a “worst case scenario” nine-member board hypothetical, wherein the Rec Center JPB needs to provide $1.1 million in annual funding, each board seat would come with a $122,222 price tag. For instance, if the city had three seats on a nine-member board, it would pay $244,444 annually to fund the rec center. Two members on a seven-person board would come out to $314,285 per year.
For any scenario, Gilbreath said the rec board will seek a majority on the Rec Center Joint Powers Board, in order to maintain control.
(For those unfamiliar with how the rec board runs: The rec board and the school board are two different entities, made up of the same people. When you vote for school board members, you’re electing rec board members simultaneously. The reason for the odd makeup is that a mill levy – property tax – funds the rec board, but that levy passes through the school.)
The pay-per-board-seat model would fund the rec center’s operations, but wouldn’t necessarily cover all costs. It’s unknown what sort of financial strategy the rec center will choose. At the current rec center, most services are free. You can swim for free, play pickup basketball for free, lift weights free of charge. That business model means the current rec center makes no money to run itself. The new rec center could seek to recover costs, possibly 39 percent, and membership fees would provide the bulk of revenue.
The number thrown around for monthly membership is $60 for a family of five. In most cities around the country that figure would sound like a steal for the family, but in Douglas, with residents accustomed to free services, it could be a hard sell.
Land for the site would come free of charge: 25 acres from the county on the John Lambert Subdivision (the old airport property). The county would hold the bond on the new building, but after 12 years in operation, ownership would shift to the Rec Center JPB.
Whatever MOU the three entities agree upon, Gilbreath recommends revisiting it in five years, and amending it as necessary in six. At that time, with five years of operations under its belt, the joint powers board could hammer out a new understanding based on what it learned during the center’s first few years.
City Councilman John Bartling supports the rec center, but has concerns.
“I am all for this,” Bartling said. “I, for five years, have talked about the city’s obligation to community recreation.”
Bartling noted that in some ways, the current rec center is less than ideal.
The new rec center would put community recreation first, while the rec center today, in reality, has a significant obligation to the high school.
Bartling talked about how during his time in Douglas, the city’s been in good financial shape, but in a boom and bust environment, it’s scary to commit large amounts of funding years down the road.
“There are some things that I’m really, really worried about,” he said. “The cost of this project has grown exponentially and it just scares me to death. And another thing that scares me to death is the last thing on this . . . a special election . . . I don’t think they’re historically very successful. I fear that it’s going down a second time; that our community will never get a rec center.”
Several council members were uneasy about the proposal because of the uncertainty regarding cost. At the right figure, a number that’s safe for the city, the county and the rec board, Bartling says he’s on board.
“I support the MOU, I support the funding model, but I have to be cautious,” he said. “I can afford a new Chevrolet, I can’t afford an Escalade.”
While the final costs for a rec center and Glenrock renovation aren’t fixed, the high-end mark has risen from $75 million two years ago to $100 million.
Gilbreath said that efforts are being made to cut costs. For example, what was once a proposed six-lane pool is now down to four lanes.
“We are still working on the footprint of this facility,” he said. “It’s not over.”
City Councilwoman Kim Pexton, who co-owns The Body Shop, a local gym, worries about the new rec center’s ability to attract members.
“You’re really banking on a lot of people willing to pay $60 a month for a long time,” she said.
The community will have to buy in to the facility in order for it to be successful.
“I don’t think people buy into it if they don’t get a chance to vote on it,” Douglas Mayor René Kemper said.
The city, county and rec board are likely to agree on an MOU by March 19. After that, residents will have to wait and see if the rec center makes it onto a special election ballot Nov. 5, 2019. It will be up to the voters whether they want a 6th penny tax in order to pay for the building and renovation.
Gilbreath emphasized that the clock is ticking.
“It’s time to make some decisions,” he said. “This is for young and old and everybody in between.”