Rec Center project at key juncture

It’s safe to say that plans for a community recreation center in Ely have reached a crossroads.
Within days, Ely School Board members and the general public will get their first look at architectural renderings for a complex that has been both dreamed about, and talked about, for years.
Now it’s time for government officials, recreation center supporters and yes, Ely area residents, to determine if the project is going to be more than just a dream.
At first blush, some of the numbers talked about have been staggering: $10 to $12 million, 50,000 square feet, an enormous complex that could anchor the west side of the Ely school campus.
Project supporters have laid out a vision and a survey of local residents has shown impressive support for the concept.
But as concept moves toward possible reality, more than one elephant remains in the room.
Let’s break it down like this:
Where will it go?
For now, the focus has been almost entirely on the west side of the Ely school campus.
It’s little surprise the Ely Recreation Center Complex committee designated the school site as its first choice.
It’s centrally located and there appears to be ample room, even once a new elementary playground is factored into the equation on part of the old JFK site.
There’s also natural synergy between the complex and the Ely School District, which has a severe shortage of gymnasium space and certainly could make use of a swimming pool for its physical education courses.
Economies of scale, location and flat-out common sense make it clear that if the school district looks at its gymnasium situation, there’s a natural tie-in with the recreation center complex.
How much will it cost and who will pay for it?
We’re now years into the discussion over a recreation center, and it’s unclear where the money will come from to pay for construction costs that have been estimated to be as much as $10 million to $12 million.
That’s partly by design, as committee members have purposely steered clear of getting bogged down with the finances while pursuing the concept.
But sooner or later those hard discussions must come and those will come soon if project supporters and government officials give the green light.
It’s no secret that a local sales tax has been touted as one primary source of revenue.
The sales tax faces its own hurdles, not only in St. Paul but locally as well , but for decades it’s been touted by a litany of Ely officials for one project or another.
It’s not hard to envision some combination of sources in which , perhaps, the school funds perhaps the gymnasium portion of the project and sales tax or perhaps IRRRB dollars fund the bulk of what’s left.
Those concepts all need to be fleshed out with hard data and at the same time, local government officials and area residents must decide if they’ll support a sales tax and earmark money generated from it toward the recreation center complex.
What about annual operating expenses?
This unanswered question could be as important as any in the debate.
Even if a funding package can be cobbled together to support construction of a new facility, there remain the annual and sure to be hefty expenses associated with operating the complex.
A decade ago, the school district was staring at annual costs of more than $40,000 just to maintain a swimming pool, and a $10 million complex will require a significant commitment for operations and maintenance.
User fees are sure to be part of any operational model, and the bright side is that there are models to follow.
One needs only to look to the North Shore and Grand Marais, where the YMCA operates a similar facility built there and has several full-time staff.
The downside is even with a partner, and user fees, the Grand Marais facility still needs an annual public subsidy to meet its operating budget.
While not certain, it’s entirely possible that Ely area residents may need to pony up to keep a recreation complex up and running here.
Again, it’s far too early to say how much and what it would mean on anyone’s tax bill, but those talks will come if the project has legs.
Public subsidies for public facilities are no new concept. Right now, Ely property owners subsidize the public library to the tune of $281,700 a year. That’s more than $1 out of every $6 collected in property taxes for the city of Ely.
Would a recreation center require a subsidy as large? It seems very doubtful and if the obligation were spread across a wider realm, including outside the city limits perhaps, the property tax hit would pale in comparison to the library’s.
That’s another thing to ponder as talk of a recreation center ramps up.
Sooner or later the rubber must hit the road. Details of this long-discussed project are sure to take shape over the next several months, and it’s time for local governments, and the public at large, to get engaged, weigh the benefits and costs and come up with a decision.