By Danielle Dodder
Stacy Needles Witthoff is a truly ‘local’ local: as a Marco native, she didn’t drive over the bridge one day, fall in love, and stake out territory, although as a real estate agent she’s helped many do just that. Instead, she’s been quietly raising her family and working on the Parks and Rec Advisory Committee to give our kids a place to play, our seniors a place to stay fit, and our clubs a place to gather. A community center, after all, is place for everyone, including those whose budgets don’t allow for YMCA or Island Club memberships.
The city’s master plan, adopted in 2005, called for a modernization of the 20 year old center, but as Witthoff and the rest of the committee worked to gather input and plan, the economic collapse wiped out the budget even as demand for its low, or no-cost services rose.
Now the city and the committee wrestle with the proposed $6 million price tag and have sought a common alternative to a loan or bond issue. P3 is a public/private partnership funding vehicle that originated during the high public debt of the 1970’s and 80’s. Public infrastructure projects are funded by private companies, backed by the government and often partially funded by a third party donor or investor.
Mills Gilbane is a construction company that operates primary on the P3 model, according to the company’s website. Mills Gilbane proposed to build the center and then lease it back to the city, in 12 annual payments of $600,000, according to Parks and Recreation Director Bryan Milk. “It covers construction and finance cost. The interest rate is approximately 2.99%.”
“There is no penalty for paying it off early,” points out Witthoff. This is where the Parks and Recreation Foundation comes into the P3 equation, with its responsibility to provide fundraising. “Which doesn’t usually come in until people see [the project] start to happen,” says Witthoff.
Currently, one dilapidated room serves clubs, senior and children’s programming and private events. The park is a popular spot for children’s birthday parties, says local mother Cleo Lazaridis. “The price is right for parents but now it’s down to one room. The calendar is very full and it’s hard to get a time.”
According to Milk, the center’s capacity is 230 people. In season, approximately 20 clubs or organizations, 10 fitness classes, special events and the general public compete for the space in a given month.
Popular and inexpensive, a single senior fitness class can draw over 100 participants a week. This season, those classes often bumped children’s programming from the room. A large club like the Italian American Society can max out the center with its meeting alone.
The current two-story plans for the center originated with community feedback to the Advisory Committee. “We sought public feedback and conducted focus groups… They overwhelmingly stated a need for the indoor track and basketball court,” says Whitthoff.
Keeping a new center cost-neutral is a goal for the Advisory Committee. “A new center will create new costs: increased water, staffing, for example. We want the programming offered by the center to cover those annual expenses,” adds Whitthoff.
That programming itself is ambitious, seeking to add a banquet room and teaching kitchen to the more traditional computer classes, continuing education for adults, camp space for kids and fitness rooms for adults.
Witthoff points out that next steps include public input. “This is something that we, the committee, propose to the community. It’s something we strongly believe in.”