Split board, no vote on rec complex

4-2 decision to table leaves project in limbo, comes after opposition-dominated public meeting

PACKED HOUSE at the media center as school board members debated a plan to locate a proposed 50,000 square foot recreation complex on the west side of the school campus.

by Tom Coombe -

The prospect of a 50,000 square foot community recreation complex on Ely’s school grounds remained alive Monday, as school board members put off a vote amid division over the project.
Angering some in the audience that filled the high school media center, the board decided 4-2 to table the issue rather than vote on a plan to support a school campus location for the proposed Ely Regional Community Complex.
That decision came after an hour of testimony dominated by project opponents, and followed an earlier unsuccessful bid - which failed on a 3-3 tie vote - to alter the agenda and pass a watered-down version of school district support for the project.
A meeting that was expected to settle a drawn-out debate over the school’s role in the long-discussed project ended with the issue unsettled, and with the board in the middle of an increasingly dvisive issue.
School board member Heidi Mann acknowledged as much during the board’s discussion, contending that the issue is “tearing our community apart.”
Mann joined board members Scott Kellerman, Tom Omerza and James Pointer in voting to table, while board chairman Ray Marsnik and Rochelle Sjoberg were opposed.
Marsnik called on the board to settle the issue and said moves to delay action were simply “kicking the can down the road.”
The board, however, seemed at an impasse, with neither the support to defeat the proposal or move it forward amid public concerns over project finances, school security and potential competition with private business.
Omerza called for more time to craft a solution and Kellerman agreed.
“We can always change our minds,” said Kellerman. “If they need more time to study the issue, I don’t see why we can’t accommodate.”
Kellerman rescinded his motion to proceed, which included several conditions including that the ERCC board deliver a “financially viable project,” without encumbering school district bonding or other funds, except fees for district use of the proposed complex.
Omerza by rescinding his second and offering a motion to table, which passed on the 4-2 vote and disappointed many in the audience.
“We are not happy with you,” one woman yelled from the audience.
It’s not clear what will happen next, although both Marsnik and superintendent Kevin Abrahamson indicated that the issue would be back on the agenda at the board’s Jan. 8 meeting.
A vote that night, however, is far from certain and would take movement by at least one of the members who opted Monday to table. Unless board members come to a resolution, a vote could be delayed for months, even indefinitely.
The debate continues to rage, as supporters and opponents offered competing visions this week about how the potential $12 million complex, which is expected to include a swimming pool, gymnasium, workout/weight area and other amenities, would fit in the community.
Todd Heiman, an ERCC committee member, asked school board members to support the school location and said the committee “envisions children flooding into the facility at the end of the school day,” for sports practices, swimming lessons and other programming.
Local business owner John Schifelbein countered that “it would be more like a trickle,” and was highly critical of a facility that he contends would compete with numerous private businesses in the community.
Schiefelbein sarcastically noted that perhaps the recreation complex could also sell “newspapers, flowers and maybe even securities” and that it “could put the whole town out of business.”
Opposition forms
Fueled in part by a social media campaign, opponents of the project rallied en masse and made up most of the audience of roughly 80 people.
They cited a bevy of concerns, many outlined by former mayor Roger Skraba.
“I’m rising in opposition to putting this on school property,” said Skraba.
Skraba charged that there were “zoning, financial, bonding, demographic and children’s safety” issues all tied with locating the facility on the school campus.
The possibility of state bonding for the facility puts the school district at financial risk, according to Ely resident Nick Wognum.
While ERCC leaders hope to obtain $5 million or more in state bonding to pay for construction, Wognum said there remain unanswered questions including who will own the facility as well as the ramifications of accepting state bonding funds.
Wognum pointed to state law requiring a local unit of government to pledge to operate and maintain a facility that receives state bonding funds for at least 37.5 years, even if a non-public group dissolves or walks way from the project.
Others told school board members they were skeptical about linking a recreation complex that could be accessed by the public with the school campus, which has tighter security including locked doors for much of the day.
Police chief John Lahtonen said he was concerned about children’s safety and potential dangers with allowing public access to a building that may also be used by children.
While Lahtonen said he has heard from supporters that “something could happen anywhere,” he responded “I’d like to believe the last place we’d want this to happen is at school.”
Steve Smrekar, a retired Ely teacher, agreed.
“The school is meant for kids,” he said.
Lahtonen also said he was concerned with congestion on Fourth Avenue East at the start and end of the school day and charged that putting a massive recreation complex on the west side of the campus “only makes the issue more challenging.”
Unfair competition?
Several speakers, many of them associated with Ely business Studio North, contend a recreation complex on government property, and one that could receive government funding, would provide unfair competition for private businesses.
That was one of the arguments made by Nichole Boitz, who owns Studio North.
“America is about free enterprise,” said Boitz. “In a small business, every dollar counts, every penny counts.”
Boitz said a recreation complex that sells memberships and offers a weight room and cardio-fitness room duplicates the services she already offers to the community.
She charged that a recreation complex operated by a non-profit “would lead to a slow painful demise or a very quick one” for her business and others.
“Would you risk your career on a big what if?” Boitz asked the board.
Studio North’s Jill Manning and Steph Morris both took aim at financial projections advanced by the ERCC in its proposal to the board, including estimates that the facility would generate more than 900 monthly memberships paying anywhere from $30 to $60 per month.
“Our population does not warrant a facility of this magnitude,” said Manning. “I’m invested in the community and I want best for it, but I don’t think this is it.”
Morris said that the projections assume more than half of Ely’s senior citizens would purchase $30 monthly memberships to the recreation complex, while Ruthanne Fenske questioned if the projections factored in the typical 30-to-40 percent attrition rate for recreation center memberships after a year of operation.
“I’m not against a rec center being built in our community,” said Fenske. “I am against building a non-sustainable facility on school grounds.”
Ely business owner Mauro Caruso voiced similar concerns and charged the projections ran afoul of the ERCC’s own public survey, which gauged sentiment about membership rates.
Caruso also cited the local economy and demographics and said “the town has not grown any,” in his 16 years of owning businesses here.
Caruso’s wife Dafne also spoke, terming the debate in part as discussions between community wants and needs.
“Fantasy is we want a pool,” she said. “The reality is we don’t need one.”
Caruso also questioned the need for a 50,000 square foot facility that will have thousands of square feet of open space “to compete” against businesses, including her family’s, that rent space for various events.
Gerald Tyler, president of Up North Jobs, read off a list of Ely businesses and the amount they pay in property taxes, charging that it’s unfair for those businesses to pay more in taxes to support a facility such as the ERCC, which will not pay taxes.
Supporters counter
While outnumbered Monday, supporters of the ERCC made the case both for the complex itself and for it to be placed on school grounds.
Heiman reiterated the group’s desire for a partnership with the school district, and to continue discussions to see if it’s feasible to locate the facility on the campus.
The school location has been the focus for the ERCC board, although the group has looked at other sites including the former city garage property just off of Central Avenue and property near the Ely hospital.
But no other site, according to Heiman, offers the access and synergy as the school location.
He cited a similar project built on school grounds at Grand Marais, and noted public comments by officials there - some of whom were originally skeptical - that the impact to their students has been “invaluable.”
The Ely project has been buoyed by the announcement of two anonymous contributions - one for $5 million and another for $1 million - to aid in construction.
Heiman asked the school board to take advantage of the opportunity.
“The ERCC is a gift to our community,” he said. “If it’s located on school grounds it will be an even larger gift.”
ERCC chairman Jeff Sundell spoke briefly and asked the board to take part in “the most potentially impactful project for the school in generations.”
Local physician Jim Montana also spoke in favor, contending that the Grand Marais project “has demonstrated that safety can be ensured,” and noting the health benefits of amenities such as a swimming pool.
Montana also said a recreation complex would provide an advantage for the district in drawing additional students to the area.
Julie Hignell, executive director of Ely Community Resource, spoke in support of the school location and said the ERCC’s “value to kids is pretty amazing.”
She pointed to the central location and the difficulty ECR has in getting children to participate in programs at the city-owned recreation center, tucked away on Main Street.
“Parents tell us again and again they don’t want their kids walking over there,” she said.
Chelsea Blomberg, a physical education teacher at the school, also spoke up in support of the proposal.
Rocking her newborn baby in her arms, Blomberg said “our kids need phy ed space,” and noted the benefits of a new gymnasium on campus on “red paper days,” days when inclement weather forces recess indoors.
“I can see great benefit to our school and students,” said Blomberg. “If this is going to be built in Ely, it may as well be by the school.”
A divided board
Tension over the hot-button issue was apparent at the board table almost as soon as the meeting was called to order.
Omerza first tried to amend the agenda, offering a revised motion in which the district would agree to continue discussions on about locating the recreation complex on school grounds, “pending additional information and the ability to agree on specific terms and conditions.”
He defended the move, saying the board “wants specific information to make an educated decision.”
Marsnik bristled at the suggestion.
“I myself believe we have been studying this long enough,” he said, noting that talks have gone on for more than a year.
He also questioned the timing.
“I would have appreciated it if you brought this up before now,” said Marsnik.
Board members split right down the middle, with Omerza, Kellerman and Pointer in favor, and Marsnik, Sjoberg and Mann opposed.
The board was silent for more than an hour, listening to the various public comments.
When they resumed discussion, the split remained.
Pointer said he struggled with the resolution up for a vote but added he “would like a chance to work through” questions he has about the project.
Omerza concurred and said “for the benefit of our kids I would like to look further at this so we can get specifics.”
Marsnik disagreed and pressed for a decisions.
“This board told this (ERCC) committee we would put this on hold,” said Marsnik, noting a school board decision this fall.
Marsnik said the charge of providing recreation falls to the city, not the school district and added “I don’t believe we should be getting into the recreational business.”
The longtime chairman added that he’s “done my homework” and found it very rare for a school district to own a recreational complex.
He also disputed contentions that the district needs additional gymnasium space during the school day, citing discussions with both the high school and elementary principals, although he said he agreed that school athletic teams would benefit from additional space.
But Marsnik said the school could use that space regardless of where a recreation complex is located and that it did not have to be on campus.
Mann told the group she “finds it sadly ironic a facility we all call a community complex is pulling us apart.”
“I feel we all need to take a step back,” said Mann. “And see if there’s a third way or a fourth way. I’m very stuck.”