Page City Council mulls cost of recreation center

Posted

Support for the construction of an indoor recreation and aquatic center has been growing in recent months among many residents of Page. Last week, City Manager Darren Coldwell led a discussion by City Council that sought to address one of the biggest questions pertaining to establishing such a facility in Page: How will it be paid for?

The March 8 meeting, which was open to the public, was attended by around 25 local residents. 

Coldwell provided an overview of the recreation and aquatic center but also, more importantly, the financial aspects of the project. He made it clear that the meeting was just the first step in the process of deciding whether such a facility could or should be built. 

“Even the drawing that you’re going to see is literally just myself and a couple other people working with an architect to project what we were thinking might be an asset to this city,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort from staff to make this thing go, and if it’s not something council is sincere about or wants to pursue, we don’t want to put in the time and effort.” 

The “drawing” Coldwell referred to was an architect’s rendering of what the recreation and aquatic center might look like, based on suggestions from community members concerning what they would want included. 

The 44,000-square-foot facility was designed in three separate squares so that it could be built in sections. The first section includes offices for working staff, a gymnastics and dance room, a weight room, a babysitting room, a climbing wall and a room available for social functions or for teaching classes.

The second section encompasses two racquetball courts, four batting cages and two basketball courts, with four locker rooms that would enable the facility to host basketball and volleyball tournaments. The third section includes a six-lane, Olympic-size lap pool where swim meets could be held, as well as a kiddie pool.

The plan also includes an outdoor lazy river, the only portion of the facility that is outside and therefore seasonal. 

The cost of building the facility as presented would be at least $37 million, Coldwell said. He added that Page’s budgeted excise tax revenues for the 2022-23 fiscal year were around $16.9 million, far short of the funds necessary to build the facility. On top of this would be annual operating costs, estimated to be around $2.5-2.8 million, for necessities such as liability insurance, staff and maintenance. 

The only option for coming up with the funding would be for the city to go out to bond and into debt, Coldwell said.

“This is where, as a city manager, I start to worry and potentially can’t sleep at night. Page is one of the few cities, probably literally in the United States, that has zero debt,” Coldwell said. “This, going forward, is going to commit for probably 25 years the people on this dais and the people that sit in my chair to quite a bit of debt and how to pay for it going forward.” 

A $37 million bond for 25 years would mean about $2.5 million taken out of operating funds each year. This could also be paid for by increasing city sales tax – in which case, costs would be shared by the city’s 5 million visitors as well as its citizens – or through a general obligation bond, in which the residents of the city pay would through an increase in property tax. 

“The problem that council has is, can you sell that? Can you sell to the residents of Page that every single home here is going to get that amount of value out of this facility?” Coldwell asked council members. “It all depends on how much you guys support this facility and how well you sell to the people in the audience. The senior citizen is going to have to be shown they they’re going to get their money’s worth out of this project.”

After presenting the financial data, Coldwell said he wanted the City Council to give directive for him to create a citizens committee comprising six to eight people “who are sincerely interested in the project and sincerely are willing to give their time to this.” 

Reactions to the city manager’s presentation were mixed. Councilor David Auge said he thought that going out to bond would not be “very palatable” for the city, especially considering current inflation rates and the likelihood that the city’s electricity rates will increase by 40% between July and January.  

“You said raise your hand and raise the sales tax,” Auge said, referring to the ability of City Council to vote on a sales tax increase, but “the other hand is going to be grabbed by the citizenry and we’re going to be … tarred and feathered, probably.”

Mayor Bill Diak suggested that other funding sources could be tapped to minimize the financial damage, including philanthropy, donations and grants. Coldwell said the grant process has already begun, with funding for rural communities offering the best prospects for the proposed facility. 

Councilor Brian Carey said he totally supported having a recreation center in Page, and his priority would be building the aquatic section first.

“No question, this is a passionate project, number one on my list. It’s what I ran on, and I will support it until someone kicks me off the council,” he said. “The reason we added to the pool concept is because our current city’s facilities are not supporting what we want to do with our youth programs and our adult programs. And the school, through their own set of pressures, have been unreliable partners in sharing facilities.”

He suggested that money could be taken from the city’s current emergency fund to reduce the amount of debt needed to build the facility. 

“In my opinion, we’re sitting on an emergency fund that’s continuing to grow by over half a million dollars every year, is not going to be needed because I can’t anticipate a worse situation to affect our tourism than the pandemic,” Carey said. “There is more money that could be removed from that emergency fund if we capped it at the original concept of $8 million, which is about 60% of our operating budget and would handle any issues.” 

Carey agreed with Coldwell on the need for a citizens committee to help “mine all of the ideas and the sources” that could help steer the recreation center project in the right direction. 

“I do think the citizens are going to put some skin into the game for that. I also think that this council needs to decide. If we’re going to have this, we need to pay for something because it’s not going to be free. There’s no question,” he said.

Councilor Mike Farrow said the recreation and aquatic facility would help the city establish structured youth programs, which he believes are necessary, but he added that he didn’t think the council was at a point where it could say “yay or nay” to the project.

“We don’t understand the footprint yet and how do we wrap the cost to the footprint. I do believe that a [citizens] committee should be started, and it should have more homework done on it. They should look at a broader area of funding, they should look at getting a broader area of services,” he said. “I’m concerned because we’re still looking at our water supply, we have other contingencies that are not COVID-based, but we do have to weigh the overall – where’s our water, where’s our power?” 

Since the March 8 meeting was not scheduled for any action or direction, Diak adjourned after an hour-long discussion with the expectation that the issue will return as an agenda item at a regular City Council meeting in the near future.

.