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Ely School Board tables vote on ERCC proposal

Keith Vandervort
Posted 12/13/17

ELY – The Ely School Board voted 4-2 on Monday night to table or delay making a decision on allowing the construction of a 50,000-square-foot recreation center on school property.

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Ely School Board tables vote on ERCC proposal

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ELY – The Ely School Board voted 4-2 on Monday night to table or delay making a decision on allowing the construction of a 50,000-square-foot recreation center on school property.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the high school media center to witness what they thought was the making of an up or down decision on moving ahead with partnering with the Ely Regional Community Complex (ERCC) board to explore the feasibility of a financially-viable plan for locating the facility on the west end of the school campus.

As many as 17 people voiced their opinion during the open forum portion of the meeting. After more than an hour of testimony, only three people, who just happen to be members of the ERCC board, expressed favorable views for the idea.

Fourteen people told the board in various ways that locating the recreational center on the school campus was a bad idea for taxpayers, the community, and the students of ISD 696.

School board member Tom Omerza attempted to amend the motion to allow the board to get more information in order to agree on specific terms and conditions before voting on the matter at a later time.

Board chair Ray Marsnik, clearly irritated at Omerza’s 11th-hour attempt to change the wording of the motion, said he would have appreciated bringing up the wording changes before the meeting. “This motion was put on the agenda, and I myself have studied this long enough,” he said. “I’ve been looking at this for more than a year. What you are suggesting here is kicking this down the street.”

The motion to change the wording of the motion was defeated by a 3-3 vote.

The original motion said, “Moved by (blank), seconded by (blank), if the Ely Regional Community Complex (ERCC) delivers a financially viable plan to construct, support and sustain its project consisting of a pool, gymnasium, fitness center and other spaces outlined in its proposal, without encumbering School District bonding or other funds, except for a fee for service/usage basis, is the School Board of Independent School District 696 willing to allow its construction on existing school district property?”

Several members of the community chose to voice their opinions on the ERCC concept. Many of the comments centered on the financial viability and sustainability of a recreational center in a town of Ely’s size. At least one resident asked about state bonding specifics and who would actually “own” the recreational facility. Another wondered why a community should pay more in property taxes to support a tax-exempt facility.

Many Ely community members have rallied around the competitive nature and financial impact of a recreational complex on existing fitness-related businesses in town.

Nichole Boitz, owner of Studio North Fitness Center, spoke about the effect the ERCC would have on her 19-year business. “In a small business, every dollar counts,” she said. “The community was told the proposal would not duplicate or compete with existing businesses. The plan has drastically changed. Their goal is to operate like a YMCA or a non-profit government-subsidized organization using taxpayers’ state bonding money.”

She asked what such a facility would do to existing businesses in Ely. “This means the slow, painful demise, or a very quick (demise), both with the same end result: loss of several businesses, loss of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, loss of an established fitness center, loss of community projects and outreach programs,and loss of a dance program that has involved more than 3,000 Ely youth.”

She added that all of those benefits would be taken away using taxpayers’ dollars through state bonding money. The ERCC proposal calls for applying for as much as $5 million in state borrowing. “There will also be a loss of economic development. I caution you not to put the school district and the community in financial risk. Ely is a huge proponent of small businesses. What kind of message would this send to the community if we don’t embrace and encourage that?” she asked.

Boitz said she was in favor of the construction of a privately-funded pool on private property. “I would be open and supportive of dual memberships,” she said. “I would also be supportive if the school district would reach out to the community for expansion of gym space on school property. Let’s utilize the taxpayers’ state bonding money for much needed infrastructure.”

Ely Memorial High School senior Emma Larson followed Boitz and talked about the impact Studio North has had on her life. “I’ve been dancing at Studio North since I was two years old and I can’t stress enough the way Studio North, and Nicole specifically, has changed my life in such a positive way,” she said.

“Through dancing at Studio North, the most important things I have gained are self esteem, communication skills and how to push through the hard situations,” Larson said. “Studio North is my safe place.”

She described her fear of the Ely community losing the popular dance studio. “If the proposed ERCC is built, business will be taken away from the gym at Studio North, which would also put the dance studio out of business. This facility is such a great asset to our community and I can’t grasp the idea of it not being here.”

Larson also questioned the issue of maintaining safety at the school campus with the ERCC building adjacent to the school buildings. “I would not feel safe going to gym class in a building that any person in the community had access to. Shouldn’t your priority be student safety?”

Former Ely mayor and St. Louis County Planning Commission Chair Roger Skraba questioned the zoning ramifications of locating the ERCC on school property. “The property is zoned P-1. Our city code would allow that, but the issue that I have is if a day care is opened in it or if retail is brought in, that is not allowed,” he said.

Skraba also questioned the parking issue. “You are going to need 250 parking spaces, minimum. These are zoning issues that you are going to be part of in this decision-making process,” he said.

ERCC Board member Todd Heiman urged the school board to vote to “partner” with the ERCC board to determine whether it is feasible for the ERCC to be located on school grounds. “During this process, either party may determine that it is not feasible and stop the process,” he said. “The primary and fundamental reason we ask you to consider our proposal to locate the ERCC on school grounds is for the children of our community. We envision children flooding into the facility at the end of the school day. We picture them participating in open gym, open swim, team practices, and activities in the after-school lounge like doing homework with friends and working on computers.”

Ely Police Chief John Lahtonen said he was concerned with the traffic congestion problems that exist around the school, already. “Building the rec center there would only make the situation more dangerous,” he said. He also voiced his concerns with other safety issues involved with allowing the public to be on school property.

Under the old business portion of the meeting, school board member Scott Kellerman made a motion to approve the ERCC motion as stated. The motion was supported by Omerza.

Board member James Pointer said he did not agree with the wording of the motion. “It is important that we look at these other questions,” he said.

Omerza expressed a desire to take the time to work out such issues as safety concerns and business competition. “I would like to further this so we can get specifics,” he said.

Marsnik reiterated his opinion that the ERCC proposal has been put on hold long enough to get more information. “We had a study session last month where the board agreed to put this up for a vote in December,” he said. “I’ve been giving this much thought for the last year. I’ve talked to people, visited the Grand Marais complex, and listened to my constituents. I did my homework on this.”

He said he “found it very rare” for a school district to open a recreational complex on its own land. “It is rarer yet for a school district to lease land to a private business,” he said. “The role of a school board is to educate kids, and to provide and maintain the buildings necessary to do that. I don’t think the (school) board should be getting into the recreational business. That falls into the hands of the city.”

According to Marsnik, the school administrative team believes the present facilities are adequate for handling physical education offerings. “The athletic director feels we could use more space for our after-school activities,” he said.

“My second concern is the financial or legal liabilities for this district,” Marsnik added. I refuse to do anything to jeopardize this district.”

Board member Scott Kellerman, who made the motion to vote on the ERCC proposal, said, “We can always change our minds,” he said. “If we want more time to study the issues and the ERCC (board) can wait, I don’t see why can’t accommodate that.”

Kellerman rescinded his motion, with support from Omerza, and made a new motion to table the issue. The vote was tabled on a 4-2 vote with Marsnik and Rochelle Sjoberg voting no.

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