Great for Austin? Vision 2020 leaders tout rec center plan, but residents will have chance to speak out

Published 1:00 pm Sunday, March 13, 2016

A mock-up of what the new rec center could look like. Photo provided

A mock-up of what the new rec center could look like. Photo provided

The plan to build a joint YMCA and Community Recreation Center at the Austin Municipal Plant is nearing crunch time, but residents will have their chance to speak out and ask questions before the Austin City Council takes up the issue.

The community will have their chance to speak out about the committee’s plans to demo most of the former downtown Austin Municipal Plant to build the rec center at two public forums at noon and 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the large meeting room of Austin Public Library.

Vision 2020 leaders call the plan a good one for the community’s future.

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“We’re creating something that really is going to be a community space, and it’s going to be great for Austin to have something like that,” Vision 2020 Director Greg Siems said.

The project took an initial step forward last week when the Austin Utilities Board voted 5-0 to approve a roughly $2 million conditional purchase agreement to sell the roughly 7.7-acre former plant to the city.

No public money is currently slated to be used for the purchase or construction of the $35 million rec center. The Hormel Foundation has pledged $25 million for the project, Hormel Foods Corp. has pledged $5 million, and Vision 2020 aims to raise $5 million in a capital campaign.

The $2 million agreement covers the demolition, relocating the Austin Utilities facilities, some environmental mitigation efforts, and aims to preserve the turbine room.

Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur noted the agreement would call for Austin Utilities to eventually turn over a build-ready site. Austin Utilities will move out of the decommissioned plant site as it nears completion on its roughly $18 million Energy Park facility.

 Working together

City Administrator Craig Clark called it an extraordinary opportunity to work with The Hormel Foundation to build the rec center at no capital cost to the city.

Clark referenced an American Institute for Economic Research study that shows about 70 percent of college graduates are deciding where to live before they try to find work.

“Having something as great as a recreation center like this is an important economic development and quality of life component for our community,” Clark said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to take a look at it.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm, city staff and the Austin YMCA have been discussing the terms of an operating agreement, which should be released next week.

The purchase and operating agreements could go before the Austin City Council as soon as a March 21 work session. The purchase and operating agreements both need to be approved by the Austin City Council. While the purchase and operating agreements would need to pass with a simple majority at council, five council members would need to approve accepting monetary gifts for the sale from The Hormel Foundation and Hormel Foods Corp. based on state statute.

If approved, the building will feature a public portion and a portion that will be a new YMCA. The city and YMCA will each be responsible for taking care of its portions of the building, but the city is working on a deal for the YMCA to manage and run the city’s portion of the facility for roughly $200,000 year.

“To be able to partner with the Y — together, we’re more than the sum of our individual parts by working together,” Clark said. “That’s why we’re doing this. I think our residents want us to work collaboratively, and the Y’s been a great partner and long-term operator of these types of facilities, so it just makes a natural thing to do.”

The public portion of the facility would likely include a youth activity center, a children’s play area, an aquatic center with a day rate for city residents, and the spaces would be available for a few different community events. Some community meeting rooms would be open to the public for a fee, while public gathering spaces would be free to the public, but Tanya Medgaarden, co-chair of the rec center committee, said those plans are still in the works.

Other parts of the facility — gyms, a gymnastics facility, workout rooms and a running track — would only be accessible to Y members, though many details are still being worked out.

 ‘Not just a new Y’

Clark said the city will not be subsidizing a new YMCA. The Y will still need to operate and set rates for its facility on its own. The city’s portion would not fund the YMCA side.

“The areas that are public will be public responsibility,” Clark said. “The YMCA area, they’re responsible for that area.”

“It’s not just a new Y,” Siems agreed.

The Y and city will handle separate capital improvement projects and will be responsible for the upkeep of their own separate parts of the facility. Part of the plan calls for an escrow for replacement funds built in for new carpet and such things down the road.

“They’re responsible for their portions of the facility, both ongoing and capital replacement,” Clark said. “So we really got a great opportunity to take advantage of the synergy of working with the Y but then not being responsible for their components of the facility.”

The roughly $200,000 a year from the city would cover staffing, utilities and insurance for the Y to operate the public areas.

“We’re paying for what we’re getting from the public side of the equation,” Clark said.

After the proposed 30-year lease, the city would look into renewing a similar deal at that point. Some incremental increases could be factored in as well since $200,000 today isn’t what it will be in 30 years.

The city’s annual contribution would largely come from the general fund, which is largely tax dollars.

“The council needs to make a decision to make that commitment towards the benefits of that the recreation center can provide the residents,” Clark said.

The city has talked to Mower County officials about an agreement to open the rec center up to Mower County residents to the same provisions, but those discussions are still preliminary.

Parking has been a public concern for the plant site, and Vision 2020 leaders say that will be explored during the design phase. But initial plans call for the potential to merge parking lots with Austin Public Library and to have overflow parking at Riverside Arena.

 Moving forward

If the City Council approves the acquisition of the building, Vision 2020 will shift its focus to design.

“Once we acquire the site we’ll get more into the design specifics,” Medgaarden said.

The committee would also move ahead on the capital campaign to raise $5 million in public contributions. Construction could begin as soon as spring 2017.

If the purchase and operating agreements are eventually approved, Nibaur said the demolition of main parts of the plant site would start once the city has a blueprint and plan, likely through a contractor.

If the City Council votes the project down, Siems said Vision 2020 would have to take a step back to reevaluate its options.

“It’d essentially put us back at square one,” Siems said. “It would be a shame to see that happen after all the work that’s been put into it.”

The pledged fung from The Hormel Foundation and Hormel Foods are specific to the Austin Municipal Plant Site.

“We only have support for a community rec center at this site. … We’re really hoping that this is the way forward,” Siems said.

While the committee has discussed other plans, including an area around the Austin Post Offices, committee members reiterated the post office site is not on the table right now because homes and businesses would need to be acquired and razed.

“Our committee doesn’t really have interest in removing people from their homes or people from their businesses, so this [the plant] is obviously the preferred site,” Medgaarden said.

Thus far, Medgaarden and Siems say they’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about the plan to build the rec center at the site.

“It’s kind of a win-win in a sense,” Siems said.


As Vision 2020, Austin Utilities and the city of Austin continue negotiations for the Austin Municipal Plant site to become a community rec center, a big blue question mark remains on the site in the shape of a water reservoir.

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur has said members of the public often question what the plans are for the water reservoir on the plant site. The reservoir will not be removed anytime in the near future, as it’s part of a 10-year plan that lasts until 2025. Austin Utilities will at that point look at other options for sourcing water to the community, and one option would eliminate the reservoir. However, Nibaur said it’s a very costly endeavor to remove the reservoir at this time.