‘A gift for Austin’ – Council approves rec center 5-2

Published 10:09 am Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Austin, we have a rec center.

The Austin City Council voted 5-2 Monday with Council members Jeremy Carolan and Michael Jordal voting no to approve an amended lease agreement for the $35 million Austin Community Recreation Center to be built at the downtown Austin Municipal Plant.

“We look forward to working with the Y and making this a great success for the city,” Mayor Tom Stiehm said.

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The green light for the project to move forward didn’t come easy after the city, Vision 2020 and the Austin YMCA have long discussed a plan to convert the downtown Austin Municipal Plant into the community rec center, but negotiations hit a stalemate after the YMCA board didn’t pass a City Council-approved lease agreement in June.

But Stiehm and other council members thanked city staff and others who worked to move the project forward.

“This is probably one of the longest, hardest things that I’ve seen the city take part in since I’ve been here,” Stiehm said.

Council members Jeff Austin and Janet Anderson also touted city staffers for the work in getting the project done.

“I just appreciate the hard work that went into coming up with a compromise that I think benefits all concerned and gives both sides the opportunity to review once the facility is operating,” Anderson said.

The rec center will be built at the plant site and based around a new YMCA, which will feature an aquatic center, gyms, a gymnastics facility, workout rooms and a running track along with public spaces like an indoor playground, a Youth Activity Center and meeting rooms.

The YMCA Board of Directors unanimously approved the deal on Sept. 28, and Vision 2020 leaders celebrated the project’s approval.

“This is a big milestone for Austin and our community’s efforts to become a better place to live, work, and play for everyone,” said Vision 2020 Director Greg Siems said in a press release. “Our volunteers have worked tirelessly for years to move this project forward, and we are so happy that the City and YMCA were able to reach an agreement.”

The city had originally committed $200,000 a year for operating costs for the public access areas, but under this new plan the city will designate $100,000 a year for a Youth Activity Center and indoor playground — both of which would be free and accessible to the public.

An additional $100,000 a year — or whatever amount the city sees fit — could then go toward forming a scholarship fund to help moderate-income Austin residents access the rest of the facility, though council would have discretion over how that fund would operate since it won’t be stipulated in the lease.

The initial deal stalled when the city and YMCA were divided over day pass limitations and costs at the aquatic center. While the city was focused on ensuring affordable accessibility, Y board members were concerned about maintaining its membership and its budget.

The new plan gives the Y control over membership costs and day passes while making the city’s contributions more specific to the things it cares most about: the Youth Activity Center and Indoor playground.

The center will also include individual and family day passes to a aquatic center, while the YMCA will be responsible for operating the facility, including setting rates and covering the projected $2.2 million annual budget.

“The agreement strikes a great balance for both sides,” said Vision 2020 Steering Committee co-chair Tammy Kritzer in a press release. “The community will have access to amenities that were specifically requested by citizens and identified through the Community Recreation Center committee’s research and surveys. At the same time, we have a great operating partner in the YMCA that will manage the facility sustainably so the community can enjoy it for many years to come.”

Stiehm and Anderson noted this deal proves to be a good compromise for both sides and that it gives both sides the chance to review the project and operations after a year or two and consider further partnerships at that time.

“This is just kind of a beginning for us, hopefully,” Stiehm said.

But in voting no, Jordal, who is up for reelection and being challenged by former Vision 2020 Director of Vision Creation Laura Helle,  argued many people in the community are against the project and deserve their voices to be acknowledged.

“I feel there’s a large portion of the citizens who are not in favor of this project, and I feel their voices need to be heard tonight,” he said.

However, Stiehm argued that most who oppose the project aren’t knowledgeable about it, what it will entail and how the city will contribute.

Council member David Hagen agreed with Stiehm, noting most people favor the project once they learn more about it. He called the project a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city.

Council member Steve King agreed.

“This is truly a gift for Austin,” he said.

Along with the free indoor playground and free Youth Activity Center, the plan is for there to be a public gathering space in what’s now the Turbine Room, but that will depend on feasibility once the project is closer to design and construction.

The rec center is expected to cost $35 million to build with $25 million pledged by The Hormel Foundation, $5 million from Hormel Foods Corp. and another $5 million is to be raised through a community campaign.

“It took a long time and this is a compromise agreement, there’s no two ways about that, but I think after looking at it, it’s very much in the best interest of the citizens of this city to move forward with this,” Stiehm said.

The site would be owned by the city and leased to the YMCA, with many of the lease terms approved in June still in place. The city would be responsible for maintenance and future upkeep of the public portions of the facility, while the YMCA would be responsible for its portions.

“We look forward to working with the Y and making this a great success for the city,” Stiehm said.

Now that negotiations are complete between the city and YMCA, the Vision 2020 Community Recreation Center committee will reconvene in the near future to discuss the design, programming and fundraising for the future facility. Anyone interested in participating in this process is encouraged to contact committee co-chair Matt Cano.

For further inquiries, please contact Community Recreation Center committee co-chairs Matt Cano at matthew.e.cano@ampf.com or 507-437-3523 and Tanya Medgaarden at  tanya.medgaarden@claconnect.com or 507-440-9274.