ELY – The prospect of a 50,000 square-foot community recreation complex on Ely’s school grounds died last week with a formal statement from the Ely Regional Community Complex board of …
ELY – The prospect of a 50,000 square-foot community recreation complex on Ely’s school grounds died last week with a formal statement from the Ely Regional Community Complex board of directors.
A letter sent Dec. 20 to ISD 696 School Board members and Superintendent Kevin Abrahamson, by Kurt Soderberg on behalf of the ERCC board, stated, “The ERCC formally withdraws its request for a planned community recreation complex to be located on the grounds of the Ely schools.”
At their Dec. 11 meeting the school board voted 4-2 to table the issue rather than vote on a plan to support a school campus location for the proposed recreational facility. That decision came after an hour of comments, mostly from project opponents. The meeting was anticipated to settle a nearly year-long debate over the school district’s role in the project ended with the issue unsettled, and the school board in the middle of an increasingly divisive issue within the Ely community.
The letter from the ERCC to the school board continued, “Even with the potential of a positive vote at the next (School) Board meeting we have determined that our path forward would be very difficult without the full support of the administration and the School Board. As we move forward to select a site for the planned facilities and programs, we request that the District continue to have representation on our Board so that we can meet the needs of Ely kids as effectively as possible. Thank you for the time that you have invested in the process and the consideration of our request.”
Soderberg said the ERCC board was unanimous in its decision to withdraw the request. ERCC board members did not provide further comment. “We think the statement stands on its own,” Soderberg said.
This prospect of a $12 million recreational facility in Ely was initiated as many as seven years ago by Ely businessman Jeff Sundell and increasingly drew both strong support and opposition throughout the community. As progress was made on a viable plan, the ERCC board zeroed in on the Ely school campus as the most logical location for the facility that would include a swimming pool, gymnasium and other recreational attributes.
As discussions continued, the issue grew more divisive. School board member Heidi Mann acknowledged her observations during the board’s Dec. 11 meeting. “This is tearing our community apart,” she said.
Mann, along with fellow board members Scott Kellerman, Tom Omerza and James Pointer voted to table making any decision. Board chairman Ray Marsnik and Rochelle Sjoberg were opposed. Marsnik called on the board to settle the issue and said delaying any action was simply “kicking the can down the road.”
In comments about the ERCC’s school location withdrawal request, Marsnik said, “I don’t really have anything to say except that I’m glad the issue of locating the facility on school property is resolved. It was their decision. We have been considering this for at least a year and it is time to move on.”
The Ely community discussed the issue through social media and ERCC opponents quickly drowned out the supporters. While some issues are tied directly to locating the recreational complex at the school, any proposed location for the facility around town would likely reignite the flames of opposition.
While the school location was the focus for the ERCC board, the group is considering other sites, including property near Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital, and the former city garage property just off of Central Avenue.
In comments to the school board, former Ely mayor Roger Skraba listed zoning, bonding, demographic, financial and children’s safety issues included with locating the facility on the school campus.
Ely Police chief John Lahtonen said he was concerned about children’s safety and potential dangers with allowing public access to a building that may also be used by children. He said he heard from supporters that “something could happen anywhere. I’d like to believe the last place we’d want this to happen is at school.”
Many members of the Ely community have rallied around the competition and financial impact of a recreational complex on the existing fitness-related business in town.
Nicole Boitz, owner of Studio North Fitness Center, questioned the existence the ERCC facility 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, 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, no matter where the facility would be located. “There will also be a loss of economic development. 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.
Marsnik 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.”
After he received the withdrawal request, Marsnik said he remains in favor of a proposed recreational facility in the Ely. “I think it could be good for our community if it can stand on its own merits, is not an undue financial burden on taxpayers, and º doesn’t have an impact on existing businesses in town.”