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Opinion
Longboat Key Wednesday, May 25, 2011 8 years ago

OUR VIEW: The rec center dilemma

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Longboat Key residents have known for a long time the recreation center at Bayfront Park needs to be replaced.

The hard parts are deciding how to pay for improvements and how expansive those improvements should be.

To be sure, Longboaters recognize there are nice benefits to redeveloping Bayfront Park into a new park with a new community center. Those who attend exercise classes and play bridge there finally might have the space and facility they’ve always wanted. Town-wide community events could be held in a convenient location with ample space. The new center would likely be hurricane resistant. And a remodeled park that offers space for more than softball, basketball and hard-court tennis could create a much more useful town amenity.

All that would be to the good.

We have always stumbled, however, on whether the number of users justifies the cost to taxpayers. The current facility hosts a few hundred people per month for activities such as bridge clubs and yoga classes. That’s only about 4% of the town’s permanent population, only 1.5% of the Key’s peak-season population.
Yet all taxpayers would pay for a new community center.

And that’s part of the dilemma for the town. Voters decisively rejected referenda for a community center in Joan M. Durante Park in 2001 and for a $6 million community center at Bayfront Park in 2003. The latter vote was a resounding defeat, and that was in a strong, growing economy. It is hard to see residents changing their minds and voting for it in the current economic climate.

Because only a small percentage of Longboat residents will use a new Bayfront Park center, it seems logical that a new community center and other amenities should charge for use. User fees are a matter of fairness, plus they help minimize costs to the entire community. Basic fairness. Indeed, this is how the Longboat Key Public Tennis operates — the users carry the operating cost. That makes sense at a tennis facility.

A community center is a different story. A few hundred bridge players and exercise-class participants aren’t likely to be able to carry the operating costs of a community without charging hefty fees. And the higher the fees, the fewer number of users. A self-fulfilling prophecy of financial failure.

That’s not the only conundrum. Building a new center at a time of continuing budget cutbacks is a dicey question. One idea is to issue bonds for a $7 million project and pay them off over 15 years with revenue from a series of sources. A bond issue, of course, would require a referendum of the same voters who have said no twice already to a community center.

Trying to think of other financing schemes, Commissioner Lynn Larson wonders if there is enough money sitting in town funds to pay for the park and then those funds would be paid back. In that scenario, the town could pay for the new facility in cash and not increase debt.

Legal opinions, however, have said the town charter requires voter approval even for bank loans. So, Town Manager Bruce St. Denis said he will need a legal opinion on whether that actually would be a way to bypass a referendum.
Avoiding a referendum might be the more politically palatable option, and it does have the benefit of meaning less net debt to the town and fewer potentially detrimental effects on bond ratings. But it is dangerous territory to circumvent the will of the people.
What to do?
One approach is to build a minimalist facility, in concert with the few people who would use it. But if the town must issue bonds to build it, this would raise another question — is that the wise thing to do when the town is still facing its pension liabilities and about to issue more bonds for beach renourishment projects? This reminds us of the family with limited means. Should it buy that new car and take on more debt when it’s already deep in previous credit-card debt? Can it put off the car and work down the debt first — clearly the more fiscally prudent thing to do.

Here is a suggestion, one that we have advocated before: Take a good look at the Longboat Library property next to Town Hall. Talk about an underutilized asset.

Is there merit in tearing down that aging building and replacing it with a structure that would have dedicated space for a new Longboat Library, the Longboat Key Historical Society and a larger community room? This has the added benefit of consolidating all of these town amenities in one location, at a town center, on Bay Isles Road.

The lot may not be big enough for a community center the size the town is considering, plus parking. But given that few Longboaters would use it, perhaps smaller is more in order anyway.

Meantime, what to do with Bayfront Park should take some additional thought. While that baseball/softball field is a gorgeous sight, you have to question whether that’s the best use of that priceless real estate.

 

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