Referendum on rec center? School board chair suggests public vote on plan to use campus site

by Tom Coombe‘
Ely area voters may get to decide if a proposed community recreation complex will be located on the school district campus.
That was the suggestion Monday by school board chairman Ray Marsnik, who floated the idea during the board’s regular monthly meeting.
Marsnik said a public referendum may be the best way to decide an issue that he contends has generated much controversy in the community.
“To me, it’s a very important decision,” said Marsnik. “Maybe some people on this board may be more comfortable letting the public decide this issue.”
Board members took no action this week, and it’s not clear what voters would be asked to decide, should plans for a referendum proceed.
Generally, school board referendum elections are linked to proposals to raise taxes, either for operating levies or construction bonds.
To date, supporters of the Ely Regional Community Complex have not requested district financial support and have instead sought the board’s blessing to endorse plans to locate a proposed 50,000 square foot complex on the west side of the district campus.
A similar complex in Grand Marais requires annual public operating subsidies of approximately $250,000, and the source of construction and operating costs for the project remain a key obstacle in the ongoing discussions.
Representatives of the school and ERCC boards have met twice this month in an effort to resolve some of the unanswered questions about the project and will meet again this week.
Tom Omerza, one of three school board representatives on the committee, found some merit with the referendum proposal.
“To me it’s worth considering (given) the weight of the decision,” said Omerza.
While Marsnik earlier suggested that the school board take action in September, it now appears less certain the board will make a decision then.
The joint committee is pursuing details on several fronts, covering everything from further financial details to security, traffic and parking concerns, as well as an opinion from an architect on space available to accommodate potential future growth in student enrollment.
Omerza told the group “I don’t want to vote with unanswered questions,” and Marsnik seemed willing to consider more time.
“I’m not trying to rush this,” said Marsnik. “If you feel something good with come of it, I can wait.”
But Marsnik added “we’ve been dealing with this issue for five months (and) I don’t know how much longer your committee will need.”
Public sentiment about the proposal also remains a point of contention.
School board members heard from both supporters and skeptics at a July study session, and Marsnik reported hearing opposition from constituents.
“I’m not only hearing from CAVE people, Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” said Marsnik. “I’m talking to people who support education in this town.”
Marsnik said a referendum would give the public a chance to weigh in on the proposal. Citing a previous special election on a new district heating system, he indicated a referendum later this year would cost the district between $3,000 and $4,000.
ERCC leaders have consistently touted the results of a statistically valid survey conducted two years ago, showing support for a recreation complex that’s expected to include a gymnasium, swimming pool, weight and cardio-fitness room and other amenities.
The project got a giant-sized jolt earlier this year, with the announcement of an anonymous $5 million contribution.
That’s expected to take a bite out of an estimated construction cost of $12 million, and ERCC chairman Jeff Sundell has talked about using some of the contribution to perhaps set up an endowment to offset operating costs.
The school and ERCC committee is meeting again at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Frandsen Bank building, and members may talk by phone with representatives of the Grand Marais facility to gather more information about the project there.

Questions related to security, traffic and parking have all been raised about the west campus location, but supporters say those are issues that have all been dealt with in Grand Marais, where a complex was built on school grounds.
According to Sundell, memberships in the Grand Marais complex are double what was initially anticipated. The center has about 1,800 members and 11-12 full-time employees.
The committee is exploring how the district might use a facility for physical education classes and a potential indoor location for elementary school recess, as well as for school athletic teams.