Vision 2020: Rec center a boon for Austin

Published 1:02 pm Sunday, March 20, 2016

By Greg Siems

Vision 2020 Director

To begin, I’d like to thank everyone who attended the Community Recreation Center forums last Tuesday. It’s exciting to see so much interest in the project, and we appreciate all of the input about how the facility can best serve the Austin community. I would like to take a little more time to talk about the history and benefits of the proposed partnership between the city of Austin and the YMCA for the new facility.

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This idea is not unique to Austin, nor was it pursued without ample consideration. The Community Recreation Center committee researched and visited numerous different cities throughout the state to see how they provide recreational opportunities for their residents. Some were completely owned and operated by the local government. Some were run solely by the YMCA or another nonprofit. Many others, however, were a combination of the two.

All of these options have their own positives and negatives. A city-run facility may provide more direct access for citizens, but would require significant tax increases if residents are not charged to use it. A private facility would cover all of its own expenses, but citizens might not want to pay for a membership to use only a few parts of the facility. A city-YMCA partnership may not be as straightforward as the other options, but it does offer the best mix of access and affordability. It provides for some free public amenities, while allowing citizens to access other areas of the facility for a small fee without requiring a full YMCA membership.

Under the proposed partnership for Austin, the city would own the building and lease it long-term to the YMCA. The YMCA would operate the recreational facilities and cover staffing and maintenance costs for the entire building, which represents about 90 percent of the annual budget. This budget is projected to be a little over $2 million, which is only a small increase from the YMCA’s current operating costs.

The remaining 10 percent, or $200,000, would be provided by an annual contribution from the city. This is not a subsidy for the YMCA, nor does it mean that citizens only have access to 10 percent of the building. The $200,000 will go toward providing important public benefits that would otherwise not be available if this were “just a new YMCA.”

There will be regular, free public access to a youth activity center, indoor playground, and community gathering space. Residents will also be able to access many of the other elements of the facility for a small per-day fee, including the new indoor aquatic center. Similar arrangements already exist for a whole host of public amenities. Consider the outdoor municipal pool, for example: Your tax dollars go toward its maintenance and upkeep, but you are still charged a small fee for daily admission.

It is of course fair to ask where the $200,000 will come from. It’s possible that a future expiring tax levy could be utilized, with the City Council’s approval. It’s also possible that the money will come out of the general fund, meaning that existing resources would have to be reallocated, or a small tax increase would be required to make up the difference. By our rough calculations, this would translate into about $20 per household per year.

We feel this is an incredibly cheap investment for the city, especially when you consider the alternatives. If the city were to operate the facility on its own, you can imagine the tax increases required to cover the entire $2 million operating budget.

Furthermore, the city is not being asked to contribute any money to construct the new building. Vision 2020 has already received $30 million in pledges from The Hormel Foundation and Hormel Foods, and is seeking to raise another $5 million to cover the last portion of the desired amenities. If the city itself attempted a project of this scale, annual debt payments alone would well exceed $200,000.

Essentially, the City Council is being asked to approve a $35 million investment in the community. The plan is well thought out and ready to go. The annual cost is quite small relative to the enormous individual and economic benefits that Austin will enjoy. The new facility will meet a demonstrated need for greater recreational opportunities, especially during the winter. A more active population translates into lower healthcare costs and an increased sense of well being. The facility will bring more traffic downtown, helping to encourage further economic development in the area. A facility like this will also help businesses attract employees hoping to work and live in Austin.

The partnership with the YMCA and incredibly generous private financial support is what makes all of this possible. We are confident that the majority of Austin residents are on board with moving this project along, and we encourage each City Council member to support it as well.