Vision 2020 takes steps toward building community rec center

Published 10:46 am Thursday, June 13, 2013

Leaders with Vision 2020 told the Mower County Board earlier this week the community betterment group is well on its way toward meeting many goals, including taking steps toward a new community recreation center.

“It looks like we will probably build a new facility,” Geoff Baker, a Vision 2020 steering committee member, told the board Tuesday.

Baker and Laura Helle, Vision 2020 director of creative vision, updated the board on the group’s recent work and asked the board to consider giving annual funding support.

Email newsletter signup

“We’re making really good progress in the first year of Vision 2020,” Baker said, noting that it has been a year of planning for the community betterment group.

Some of that progress has come on work for a new recreation center, as Vision 2020 is currently working on a $54,000 study funded by the Hormel Foundation, the YMCA the city of Austin and the Blandin Foundation to assess fitness and recreation needs in the city.

The new facility would cost about $25 million, with construction targeted for 2014 to 2016.

“It will be a dramatic expansion of health and fitness services in the city of Austin,” he said.

The facility could also add 20 to 30 jobs. It would likely be run by existing groups, possibly the city and YMCA.

Baker said Vision 2020 could constitute a $120 million capital investment in the city of Austin in the next decade, which will go toward improving jobs and quality of life.

Baker asked the board to consider funding Vision 2020, and said the formal request will likely be for $10,000 this year and next year.

“I firmly believe what we’re asking for are meaningful and important investments,” Baker said.

Vision 2020 needs $30,000 to $40,000 a year for daily operations, he said.

The county board voted down Vision 2020’s first request to provide $10,000 in startup costs last year, but commissioners told Vision 2020 to come back in the future.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson told Helle and Baker the group’s fund request for the board should be formally submitted soon, as the finance committee will soon start working on the 2014 budget.

“We think it’s a good investment for the county primarily because of economic impact that it has and the quality of life impact that it has, not just in Austin, but in Mower County,” Baker said.

Board Chairman Jerry Reinartz spoke positively of Vision 2020.

“It’s really an ambitious plan — this whole thing, and I think everyone’s really kind of excited about it,” Reinartz said, noting it’s especially exciting to start seeing some of the results coming in.

In Reinartz, Vision 2020 has at least one supporter on the board.

“I think, too, we should be a part of it,” he said.

Other commissioners said the county’s finance committee should discuss requests before any decision is made.

Commissioner Tony Bennett said he’d be concerned about the overall dollar amount that’d be given to Vision 2020, and suggested the finance committee discuss the issue before any vote.

Baker told Bennett that Vision 2020 can continue to update the board on what’s going on with specific projects.

“I think that’s a very fair request to come back to you with a timeline,” he said.

The board will send Vision 2020’s request for this year to the finance committee, and any request for 2014 funding will be included in the budget process along with other yearly funding requests from organizations.

 What’s happening with Vision 2020:

Along with Geoff Baker and Laura Helle’s updates on the community recreation center, the two also updated the board on other work in Vision 2020’s 10 committees. Here are highlights of what they told the board:

Downtown Power Plant
Vision 2020 leaders are doing a $89,000 study on how to convert the old downtown utility building into a self-sustaining retail, restaurant and housing center.
“That is a very large dollar item,” he said, adding it could cost $35 million. It is currently targeted for 2015 to 2017.
Baker said they’re looking to have about 30 housing units.

Gateway to Austin
The plan to build an iconic attraction is moving down the road — slowly.
“This is a very long-term and very challenging project,” Baker said. “There’s no two ways around it.”
Baker said this group’s main goal is to grow tourism in Austin, and he added the committee has done a great job so far with a challenging task.
“The committee believes they can have a significant impact on the city of Austin,” Baker said.
The project aims to increase tourism by 10 percent by 2020. The project could cost $12 million, with activity coming near the end of the decade.
Baker said they’re aiming for it to be funded through MnDOT or federal highway dollars.
MnDOT representatives met with Vision 2020 leaders and Commissioner Mike Ankeny Wednesday to visit some of the sites of where the gateway, which Ankeny described as aesthetics, could eventually be placed.
Leaders indicated some of the work by this committee will be done over time as bridges are replaced through construction plans already in place with the county and state, but the first isn’t on the county’s construction schedule until 2015, and some aren’t even scheduled yet.

Community Wide Technology
Vision 2020 is currently working to study a plan to bring high-speed Internet to Austin, but it won’t be easy.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” Baker said. “It’s an expensive goal.”
This plan could cost $20 million, but Baker said it has the ability to change to community and make Austin more attractive to current and new businesses.
“Employers in town are really excited about this one,” he said.
The committee is currently investigating state and federal funding sources.

Bike-Walk Trail System
Of all the 10 committees, Baker said the Bike-Walk Trail Committee has perhaps had the most short-term success.
When looking at a map of the trails in the region, Baker said there’s a chance to make Austin a focal point.
“There is a spectacular opportunity to make Austin and Mower County really the centerpiece of that entire system,” Baker said.
Baker said this group is not just about building trails, but it’s also looking at increasing usage on the trails and making them safer, especially for children.
Efforts on the trails are estimated to cost about $3 million and are targeted for 2013 to 2016. The committee has gotten funding from the city, MnDOT, Austin Public Schools, federal grants and more.

The waterways committee is working to help clean up the waterways, with the desire to make them usable and attractive for recreation.
The estimated cost is $2.5 million, and they’re looking to work to attain state funding.
Helle said this group is looking to add access points, signage and more to the area waterways to promote water recreation.
“They particularly would like to see a big summer event that would attract thousands of people,” Helle told the board, noting it could be a canoe race.
Commissioner Tim Gabrielson, who serves on the water board, asked Helle and Baker how they’d address impassable parts of the Cedar River between the Lansing and Austin that have been affected by sediment, erosion and trees along the river.
Baker said the watershed districts are working on sediments, and Vision 2020 is working with them. As part of the state water trail system, Helle said the Department of Natural Resources may give more attention to the Cedar River and may be willing to do more cleanup projects to open up opportunities for canoeing.
“We’d like to get to the point where there could be an outfitter in Austin driving people to Lansing,” Helle said.

Education Leaders
This group is looking to make Austin a place people want to move to because the education is so good.
“I think they’ve done spectacular work in trying to identify non-conventional ways to really improve education execution in the city from Riverland all the way down through pre-K,” Baker said.
The committee is working to join the STRIVE network.
This will be a data-driven group, and Baker said the Hormel Foundation has been vital in helping this committee, as have other big employers.

Downtown — A Destination
This group is working to make downtown Austin a better, more business friendly environment
“We need to grow our downtown presence,” Baker said, “specifically when it comes to housing and business development.”
Baker said the committee has ambitious, but achievable plans to make downtown a more viable place.
The plans focus on fire site and bank building, according to Baker, with about $5 million in estimated costs. The Hormel Foundation and HRA are currently leading a housing study.

Community Pride and Spirit
Baker described this group as “probably the least costly, but one of the most interesting of the 10 groups.”
Right now, the group is working with the CHIP program to target neighborhoods to upgrade through partnership with homeowners through work in the house beautify neighborhoods.
Vision 2020 reported $40,000 of home improvements this spring.

Business Friendly  Environment
The group looking to make Austin more business-friendly is working to develop a community venture capital fund.
“What they’re really trying to do is focus on activities that grow median household income really by attracting higher paying jobs that exist in the Austin area today,” Baker said.
Baker described this group as having “goals that we all absolutely agree with.”