Rec center issue could be decided Monday

Published 7:01 am Sunday, October 16, 2016

The fate of the $35 million Austin Community Recreation Center could be decided Monday night.

After voting in favor of the plan at a work session, the Austin City Council is expected to vote on an amended lease agreement for a proposed YMCA-run rec center during the council’s 5:30 p.m. meeting at Austin City Hall, 500 Fourth Ave. NE.

The Austin City Council put its tentative support behind the project on Oct. 3 with a 5-1 vote with Council member Michael Jordal voting no. The council was originally set to vote on the project at that night’s regular board meeting, but the issue was pushed to the work session because Council member Steve King was absent and city officials wanted to vote with a full board.

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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 negations hit a stalemate after the YMCA board didn’t pass a City Council-approved lease agreement in June.

The rec center would be built at the plant site and based around a new YMCA, which would 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 city had originally committed $200,000 a year for operating costs for the public access areas, but under the new plan the city would 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.

“This is probably the best compromise that we could have come to,” Council member Jeff Austin said at the Oct. 3 work session.

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 would 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.

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.

A vote on liquor sales

The Austin City Council will again discuss two changes that could make it more convenient for Austin residents to buy liquor during its 5:30 p.m. Monday meeting at City Hall.

On Oct. 3, the council voted 5-1 in support of changing a city ordinance to allow liquor stores to stay open until 10 p.m. on Monday through Thursday instead of the current 8 p.m. — which would match state statute, and the council voted 3-2 with Judy Enright abstaining to allow the sale other establishments like convenience stores to sell 3.2 beer.

After getting approval at the work session, both changes must still be approved in a full meeting, and council members could potentially change their votes.

Most Minnesota cities allow liquor stores to be open until 10 p.m. during the week, while Austin currently makes the stores close at 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday while they can stay open until 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

While Hy-Vee supported the change, smaller liquor store owners spoke out against it. Bell Liquor owner Sher Kokot called it an added expense for labor and utilities, and she said the later hours make encourage thieves and robbers to target the stores.

But at the Oct. 3 work session, Council member Janet Anderson noted the change in city ordinance will not require businesses to stay open. Business owners will still be able to set their own hours of operations.

“The stores that choose to close at 8 [p.m.], that’s their choice,” Anderson said.

Council member Michael Jordal spoke Oct. 3 about Austin hosting things like the Greater Coalition of Minnesota Cities Conference, where visitors complained of not being able to get alcohol because Austin is more restrictive than the state statutes.

Jordal said approving the changes would help the city be more welcoming and conducive to visitors.

“I think being more permissive in general is a good thing,” Jordal said.