Rec center project primed for final vote

Published 10:36 am Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Austin City Council put its tentative support behind an altered Austin Community Recreation Center agreement Monday, but the project didn’t take a final step toward construction.

Council voted 5-1 with Council member Michael Jordal voting no in its work session to move an amended rec center lease agreement to the next full board meeting on Oct. 17.

The council was originally set to vote on the project at Monday’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.

The city, Vision 2020 and the Austin YMCA have long discussed a plan for the city to lease the downtown Austin Municipal Plant as the site of the community rec center, but negations hit a stalemate after the YMCA board didn’t pass a City Council-approved lease agreement in June.

Now, the project has been revived with an amended agreement many involved say is a good compromise.

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

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 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.

Austin and Mayor Tom Stiehm called the most recent plan a good compromise in that it mitigates the YMCA’s and city’s concerns; however, he and others acknowledged that both sides aren’t getting everything they want.

But questions remain. Jordal, who is being challenged in his bid for reelection by former Vision 2020 Director of Vision Creation Laura Helle, said he’s heard from a large number of people on the campaign trail that they don’t support the project as a whole or were unhappy about the location at the plant site.

“I definitely feel their voice needs to be heard at this meeting,” Jordal said, adding he thinks the YMCA should stand on its own.

But Stiehm called the rec center project a good opportunity for the community, as he argued many opposed to the project oppose it for a variety of reasons and can’t envision the finished facility while the council has to look ahead to what the facility could be in five years.

Stiehm compared the rec center to the project to build Austin Public Library, a project people were hesitant about several years ago but people now love the library.

“The council has to have a vision,” Stiehm said. “What are they going to say in five years? ‘Gee you should have done this. You missed an opportunity.’ Or are they going to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a heck of a facility here.’”

Director of Administrative Services Tom Dankert said the YMCA is open to adapting and changing things as the project moves forward. As a not-for-profit, Dankert said the YMCA’s current plans are just a start and it could expand access in some way if the facility is working.

“It’s a first step, it’s step forward to get the facility going,” Dankert 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 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.

Austin said it’s important to note the project would start without debt thanks to the donations to move the project ahead.

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.