Vision 2020: Celebrating progress on rec center project

By Greg Siems

Vision 2020 Director

As you might have read earlier this week, on Tuesday the Austin Utilities Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a conditional purchase agreement for the downtown power plant site.  This event marks a huge milestone for the Vision 2020 Community Recreation Center committee, which has worked for over a year to facilitate the agreement and secure a favorable location for Austin’s new recreational facility.

All of the volunteers working on this project extend their sincere thanks to the folks at Austin Utilities and the City of Austin for their hard work on developing this agreement, which has set the foundation for moving the project forward.  At the same time, there are still many important steps ahead of us.  Now that Austin Utilities has approved the agreement, it will be considered and voted on by City Council.

The agreement, in essence, provides for the transfer of the site to the City with the use of grant funds secured by Vision 2020.  As part of the deal, Austin Utilities will undertake the demolition, utility relocation, and environmental mitigation work necessary to provide a build-ready site for the new Austin Community Recreation Center (ACRC).

We think this is a great deal for Austin in many respects.  The agreement on the table is the only offer that Austin Utilities has received for the property since the power plant was decommissioned in 2009.  In seven years, no other community stakeholders or outside buyers have stepped forward to support another use for the building.  Without the Community Recreation Center project, much of the work mentioned above would likely have to be carried out down the road at the expense of Utilities’ ratepayers (i.e. the citizens of Austin).  With these facts in mind, we don’t think it makes sense for the community to continue maintaining and insuring an old, unused power plant.  Now Austin Utilities will be duly compensated for making the site usable again for a positive community purpose.

The agreement also provides for some work in historic preservation to be done.  From the beginning, the ACRC committee’s vision statement has stressed that the new facility will be architecturally significant, and historic preservation will be an important element of that conversation.

The other side of the coin, however, is that the committee does not have an unlimited budget.  There are generous pledges on the table from the Hormel Foundation and other organizations, but the committee still expects the need to raise $5 million in individual contributions to cover the full cost of the community’s desired amenities.  The committee intends to set aside funds for incorporating interesting and historical elements into the design, but there will eventually come a point where spending on aesthetics begins to take away too much from spending on functionality.

Where exactly that threshold lies is not certain and there are many differing opinions on the matter.  Further community input is necessary to determine what an acceptable path forward might be. Throughout these conversations, it will be important to remember the project’s overall goal, which is to construct a visually appealing facility that provides the maximum amount of recreational space and features for the community’s use and benefit.  This goal was crafted out of the public’s ideas and votes during the initial Vision 2020 process and has motivated the committee ever since.

I know the ACRC committee is excited to get started on the concrete plans and designs for the new facility, which require that a site be acquired first.  Once the City Council has taken their time to consider and vote on the proposal, the committee is prepared to move quickly to work with architects and begin the fundraising campaign.  After all of the work that has gone into the project already, it will be great to see these next important steps moving forward.

If you are interested in learning more about the project, Vision 2020 will be hosting two public forums this Tuesday, March 15th, at 12:00pm and 7:00pm in Austin Public Library’s large meeting room.  You are also always welcome to contact me or the committee leaders personally.  We are happy to discuss the project and answer any questions you may have.  You can reach me at greg@vision2020austin.com or 507-437-3448, and be sure to check out www.vision2020austin.com/resources for more information.

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