Saturday, May 24, 2008

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler

They Want To Build It Where?

Proposed Community Center Site Robs The City’s Economic Future

It’s not easy for me to throw cold water on the latest headlong rush to build a new Aquatics and Community Center at Interstate 70 and 94. After all, I would like the City of St. Charles to one day enjoy the benefits of its own Community Center. But in this case, not only is the $30 MILLION taxpayers are being asked to fund a far too expensive option, the trade-off of a prime commercial piece of property robs the city of one of our best future economic development sites.

Now that the First Capitol and I-70 Interchange is so vastly improved, access to this commercial area is no longer a negative to its private development. Several years ago, the old K-Mart site was estimated to be worth $4 million, at least double the cost of an alternative site that was under consideration for a Community Center next to Blanchette Park.

Since that time, a similar size site of the old Noah’s Ark sold first for approximately $18 million. Then coupled with surrounding residential properties that had been assembled, and a TIF granted by the City of St. Charles, the property was sold to a large national developer for a rumored $60 million. The planned commercial and high-rise residential development planned for the site is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, just one exit away, and under vastly improved highway access as I mentioned before, the Mayor believes the “highest and best” use of this property is to take it OFF THE TAX ROLLS and make it a public non-profit aquatics and recreation center. It’s time to get out of the hot tub.

Most communities that have community centers, don’t build them on prime commercial development ground. They tend to be in existing parks or near residential areas where the ground is less expensive. So why the drive to have this one occupy such a prominent location?

The answer is that it isn’t being built as a true “Community” Center. It is being built to attract users from outside the City of St. Charles. Show-Me Aquatics, the would-be partner the City would own the center with, is a non-profit organization building a regional facility to serve the needs of its client base from throughout the St. Louis Metro Area and further.

Their business plan always called for selling memberships to those without the special needs of their main client base as a way to underwrite operational costs. They need a high profile location to sell private memberships to non-residents. Apparently they need the financial backing of the taxpayers of St. Charles as well.

So while the City might promise a bigger and better facility than we might have had on our own, it comes with strings attached.

First, they want to sell off the naming rights to the facility for $2.5 million. Most community centers are named after the communities they are in. It is called community pride and we use to have a lot of it in St. Charles. Some of us still do. We don’t need a local community center named after a beer, diet soft-drink, a casino, the cable company, my cell phone provider or the electric company.

Second, we will be sharing the proposed facility with lots of non-residents, so it might be harder to book that volley-ball court when your group wants it or enjoy time in a pool with the grandkids when it is crowded with buses full of group sales coming from miles and miles faway.

Third, since Show-Me Aquatics is in the business of operating such a facility, it seems unlikely our own local Parks Department or Parks Board will be in charge. We lose control.

Fourth, the Show-Me business model was primarily an aquatics facility with some other recreational amenities thrown in. But a community center can be so much more. Will the facility be designed primarily to meet the needs of the residents of St. Charles or to satisfy the needs of Show-Me’s client base? One of our greatest needs, for youth sports, is more gymnasium space. I didn’t see that touted in the press releases.

We are told in the Mayor’s press release that Show-Me has $10 million to invest in the development and would pledge another $10 million towards the “operational shortfall”. As they will be setting the prices and marketing the facility it doesn’t seem to me that there is much risk of an operational shortfall. But the sticker shock of using the facility might just price median income St. Charles families out of the market.

And while it is nice that Show-Me would pledge $10 million, remember that it was the City that made the land they set aside for their facility at Noah’s Ark, far more valuable to sell to the current developer. How much are they getting for the sale of that tax subsidized property?

We also believed that if the developer got that TIF that Show-Me would finally be able to get their facility built. It didn’t happen. Now, apparently it will $30 MILLION in taxpayer dollars to make fly at this proposed new site.

None of what I am writing should be taken as a reflection on the goals or honesty of the Show-Me Aquatics people. They have an important mission and I wish them well in meeting it. But that doesn’t mean they are the best to help own and operate a community center for the residents of this city.

The Blanchette Park site received 54% voter approval when it was on the ballot. As a large portion of the no votes were likely opposed to any location or community center, the fact is that the vote was not a referendum on the location. At that time, however, some Council members asked what the center of the City was, believing Blanchette to be too far North.

The answer is that the population center of the City is somewhere near Hardin Middle School on Elm Street and the geographic center is on the rear of the Lindenwood University Property along Duchesne. So now the proposed site at 70 and 94 is further South from the geographic and population centers of the city than the Blanchette site was North of it.

But by far, the major reason to oppose this particular site is simply that we would be trading away land that could be worth hundreds of millions in private development to us in the future. For anyone out there still saying, oh that land will never be worth anything like that, just drive less than a mile East on I-70 and look around.

If voters are given the opportunity, as they were promised, to weigh in on this issue, they might want to make sure the pool holds water before diving in.