It's time for WECRD to actPosted Wednesday, August 29, 2012, at 8:25 AM
No project began with greater promise or higher hopes than the Western Elmore County Recreation District's effort to build a community center with an indoor swimming pool in Mountain Home.
The district was formed 12 years ago under the inspiration of Molly Marsh, who is the only remaining member of the original board. It was a wonderful dream she had and one that, to this very day, is something the majority of people in Mountain Home would like to see.
But it is a dream that has proceeded at a pace that would make glaciers seem like speed runners.
And it is an idea that has been filled with broken promises, missed deadlines and, most importantly of all, a lack of adequate funding to move it along.
On its website, the rec district says that "The decision about whether and how to move forward with this project will be made by community leaders in the next several weeks as they review the feasibility study's findings. A summary of the study's findings will be shared with the community as soon as the feasibility planning group, the YMCA, and WECRD have reviewed and approved the summary. Together, these groups will also describe the next steps in this process should the decision be made to move forward."
It would shock me if the district doesn't decide to go for a capital campaign to try and raise $600,000 to build Phase I of its proposed center.
The feasibility study for the campaign has been in the district's hands for over a month and it is filled with "positives" that would make you think this thing is possible. But I suspect much of it is pie in the sky.
For example, the study lists 16 individuals or organizations in the region that could potentially give $100,000 (and says there are more than a score -- it just doesn't list them all), but only three individuals locally indicated they could give more than $25,000. It doesn't say they would give any money, however, just that they had the ability to do so. But at least one of those three individuals I know definitely won't and another is not inclined at present to do so.
Plus, most of the regional foundations and corporations identified in the study want to see about 50-60 percent of the funds raised locally -- showing community support -- before they'll contribute. That's $300,000 to $360,000 in donations from the local area alone. It would be a pleasant surprise if that happened in this economy, but it would be a surprise. A big one.
Over the years, the district has caught a lot of flak for not contributing any money to local recreation programs. There had been a few pennies tossed that way, in terms of the district's overall budget, but it wasn't until former board member Marsha Sellers got on the board that any significant money was actually spent on youth recreation programs -- and even then it was only in the tens of thousands of dollars, a fraction of the district's overall budget that today is over $450,000 of tax money a year.
Most of the money the district has raised over the last 12 years-- roughly half of its revenue (60 percent this year but some years just below 50 percent) -- has gone to set-aside money for its building fund, of which it has a little over $2 million available.
Almost all the rest is administration in one form or another.
Some promised federal HUD funds are available to help support the project (almost $600,000) but the authorizations expire for that money in the next couple of years. And just because the money has been approved doesn't mean that in the current budget climate anybody in Washington, D.C., is actually going to cut a check. Authorizations and actual appropriations are two different things in Congress.
And if you're going to run a capital campaign, then get all the engineering done and all the approvals and permits signed off, the window to begin building something by this time next year -- as promised in the CLDC report that the board accepted two years ago -- is getting pretty narrow.
There are two other areas where non-administrative funds have been spent.
One was on land, where the district paid an above-market-value premium cost for land that limited the location of its proposed building because a flood plain ran through the property.
The other area was on studies, of which there have been many, going all the way back to 2003 when a study done then indicated people would come from as far away as Caldwell to use the pool and whose authors apparently had no clue that the base had its own pool and recreation facilities available to military personnel and retirees. Some studies are better than others, but they're all expensive.
There's been more money spent over the years on studies than on recreation. Until the YMCA got involved, too many of those studies had little resemblance to reality. In fact, about five years ago district officials were insisting their studies showed they could build their facility -- with the pool -- for less than $50 a square foot, at a time when public building projects were running well over $200 a square foot. You couldn't built a dog kennel for $50 a square foot at that time, much less a building with an indoor swimming pool in it. But the district leadership didn't seem to question the numbers they'd been given.
The district was under heavy pressure by 2008 to either get moving on its long-delayed project or dissolve when it got the Treasure Valley YMCA to come on board.
The Y's boss, Jim Everett, has kept the district alive for the last few years by diffusing criticism with his more realistic approach. The Y's programs are excellent and the possibility they might be brought here helped stall what had been a growing storm of opposition to the district.
The Y created the Community Leadership Development Committee (CLDC), which looked into the feasibility of the community center project and the possibility of contracting with the rec district to bring YMCA programs to Mountain Home.
In 2010, after more than a year of work, the CLDC released its report, urging the district to build the facility in two parts.
Phase I would involve essentially a basketball court gymnasium (2 courts), an elevated running track, some weight/conditioning rooms similar to local private gyms and some public meeting rooms. That would allow the Y to launch its programs.
The 2010 timeline indicated a capital campaign for Phase I would be run in early 2011 with construction completed and the facility in operation by early 2014.
Everything is already more than a year behind schedule (and more years than I can count behind the original schedule and proposal sold to the public in 2000 of a two-story facility with an indoor running track, basketball courts, gym and a swimming pool).
The swimming pool, Phase II, which would cost more than Phase I, wouldn't be built until 2024 under the original CLDC timeline.
But nothing would work unless the Y was supported by rec district tax dollars.
As much as I love the Y programs that could be made available to this community, I've always had some heartburn about the fact that I'd have a public, tax-supported facility that would be competing with private-business gyms in town, and which would require a Y membership on top of my tax dollars to use (or daily fees in lieu of a membership).
I've had the patience of Job over the lengthy delays in moving forward with this project. But last fall, I started to get fed up and decided to push (at least behind the scenes). Not only was there no evidence a spade was going to go in the ground any time soon, the district hadn't even launched its capital campaign feasibility study, let alone the actual capital campaign.
I was promised both would be completed by the end of the year. We quoted the chairman of the board on that. But it didn't happen.
In mid-January, four months later, I was told they'd get started on the study soon. At that point I got sick and spent a lot of the next six months in a coma playing Rip Van Winkle. When I woke up, nothing involving the district had changed. Nothing. Absolutely nothing had been done.
A year after it was promised and two full years after the CLDC report, the feasibility study has only now been completed. There was no action taken to form the capital campaign committee at the board's meeting last week. I don't buy the argument they need more time to study it. It isn't that long. A fast reader can get through it in a night, a slow one over a weekend, and they knew what it was going to say long before it was published.
With no action last week, it will be another month before the committee can be created, approved and the campaign begun.
Another month, another delay. And that's only if they go against form and move quickly.
The pool couldn't be built now any earlier than 2025 and I'm beginning to suspect that any point in this century might be optimistic.
Building the pool also will require, ultimately, a much larger capital campaign (donations) than Phase I would require, even assuming costs don't go up over the next 12 years.
We'll give the district and the Y all the news coverage we would normally give to a project of this size and importance, because I think that's our job.
But my patience is at an end. I'm tired of people telling me "just a couple more months." I've heard that for years. I can't tell you how many stories we've written about the district being on the verge of actually accomplishing something -- and then it didn't happen.
So there won't be any editorial page support for a project that, while promising, has been marked more by broken promises than progress.
If they simply wanted to bring Y programs in, they had an opportunity to use the facilities at the old Good Counsel Hall, which the city jumped on instead for its recreation, youth and adult programs when it became available.
But if they want a facility that would eventually be a core around the one thing the public really wants -- an indoor swimming pool -- then they have to start building and they have to start soon. And they have to do a lot of explaining to the public that it will be more than a decade before the smell of pool chlorine fills the building.
Frankly, if Phase I construction isn't begun within a year and the facility ready for operation on or near the first of 2014, the district should admit defeat and be dissolved.
There's been a lot of tax dollars that have gone under the bridge on this project, but there reaches a point, and it's rapidly approaching, when it's time to quit throwing good money after bad.
Get off the pot -- right now -- or call it quits.
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