Recognition of need is a key step

Shortage of rec facilities hurts our city

By The Mercury

Advocates of improved and expanded recreational facilities heard at least a little of what they hoped for last week during a Manhattan City Commission work session.

No, commissioners didn’t set a date to break ground on a multipurpose indoor structure or new athletic fields. Nor did they set a date for a referendum on the subject.

Yet Mayor John Matta, who not long ago seemed uninterested in a private group’s quest for recreational facilities, has apparently warmed to the concept. He said it is a goal to have a proposal to present to voters when the quarter-cent sales tax, which now is repaying bonds for improvements to the city’s swimming pools and Sunset Zoo, expires.

Although that tax expires in 2019, the pools and zoo improvements will be paid off before then. In fact, if the sales tax continues to generate revenue at its current rate, not only would the bonds be repaid by 2019, but, depending on how much money beyond the scheduled payments is invested in further improvements and maintenance, the tax could generate a surplus of more than $8 million.

If that outcome transpires, unspent revenue from the tax would go into the city’s General Fund, where it could well go toward capital improvements, perhaps but not necessarily of a recreational nature.

But that’s then. What is most gratifying about Mayor Matta’s remarks and those of others at the meeting is the recognition that Manhattan does indeed need — need, not just want — better recreational facilities. And even if the type and scale of those facilities are yet to be determined, the greater recognition includes the acknowledgment that the cost will be run into the tens of millions of dollars.

If 2018 seems a long way off, it’s worth noting, as Jason Hilgers, deputy city manager, pointed out, that hammering out a $25 million to $35 million — or more — project is a huge undertaking.

And given residents’ concern about tax levels and other demands on the city, Mayor Matta combined pragmatism with some optimism in discussing the possibility of asking voters to renew the quarter-cent sales tax rather than seek an additional tax.

“We can sell it to the community from the standpoint that we did one thing, we completed it, we paid it off, now we’re ready to do something else,” the mayor said.

Gail Urban, chair of the Fieldhouse group, which has proposed a $54 million project that would pay for new facilities, including an indoor site, and regroup many existing facilities, was understandably “thrilled to pieces” by the tone of the commissioners’ discussion. Nevertheless, she wants to gauge the community’s response to a possible sales tax increase before the present quarter-cent tax expires.

That, too, is understandable. Anneberg Park was a state-of-the-art facility when it was build in the 1980s. Since then, however, the city has done too little to expand or improve recreational facilities. In the interim — an entire generation — the city’s population has increased and demand has mushroomed. Moreover, apart from the joy first-class facilities would bring to present residents, such quality-of-life items would also help attract companies looking for communities to expand in.

Perhaps voters will support an additional tax for recreation facilities before 2018. Even if they don’t, however, the least the Fieldhouse group will have accomplished is renewing public interest in a subject in need of attention.

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