Cedar Rapids Council Decides New Location for Rec Center

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By Ryan Jones

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Deeply divided, the City Council last night rejected the recommendation of the City Hall’s site selection task force and decided to try a first for Cedar Rapids — building a city rec center next to a school district’s school, in this instance, Harrison Elementary School.

The council vote was 5-4, with the minority pushing unsuccessfully for the task force’s recommendation to build the $3-million recreation center — a replacement for the flood-ruined and now demolished Time Check Recreation Center in northwest Cedar Rapids — on the edge of Ellis Park where a park maintenance facility now stands.

Council member Scott Olson, a task force member, voted with the majority though he recused himself last week during the task force vote because he works as a consultant for the school district and sits on the board of the Methwick Community, which is close to Harrison School.

Olson is one of the first to have come up with the Harrison site idea a year or more ago, and last night he said he did not personally stand to gain from the decision and so he said he felt it important to vote on what he said was an important project for the city and his northwest Cedar Rapids council district.

Council member Ann Poe, who headed up the site selection task force, said the Ellis Park maintenance building site won task force support last week because it met all 10 criteria that the task force had set out for the replacement recreation center. Most importantly, the Ellis site was easy for residents from all over the city to find and it provided ready access to the Ellis Park pool, ball fields, splash pad and other amenities, she said.

Council member Monica Vernon said the Harrison school site was too difficult for people to find for a recreation center where 80 percent of the seniors, youth and disabled who use it come from outside the neighborhood, she said.

Council member Don Karr, who sat on this site selection task force and an earlier one, said the Ellis site was just 50 yards from the site that the first site selection task force had picked in Ellis Park in late 2011. Politics has intervened since, Karr said.

He said there were too many unknowns about the Harrison site and working with the school district. In fact, he said putting the rec center on school property will hurt recreational options for students because it will eliminate green space outside of the school.

However, council member Kris Gulick, whose northeast Cedar Rapids council district now includes a precinct in northwest Cedar Rapids, pointed to his former career as a parks and recreation professional and said those in the recreation field that he has talked to thought locating the rec center with an elementary school was a modern-day trend with no downside.

Gulick said building next to Harrison in a joint project with the school district — he said the district has provided the city with a letter of interest in the project — might result in a better rec center at a lower cost to the city. He called it a "tremendously good opportunity to strengthen the neighborhood and the school."

Council member Pat Shey said the city had invested heavily in the flood-hit core neighborhood around Harrison Elementary School, 1310 11th St. NW, where most of some 200 new flood-recovery homes are being built that offer attractive incentives to bring young families into the neighborhood. The city and the school district had a "shared mission" to make the neighborhood and the school better, Shey said.

Only a year ago, he noted, Mayor Ron Corbett wrote to the Cedar Rapids school district to ask it to take Harrison off its school-closing list because the neighborhood around Harrison was coming back to life.

Council member Chuck Swore said an experiment with a rec center at Harrison could lead to similar arrangements at other schools in the city.

"We should head in that direction," Swore said.

Mayor Ron Corbett voted with Vernon, Poe and Karr for the Ellis site, and council member Justin Shields voted with Gulick, Shey, Swore and Olson for the Harrison site.

In a final vote, Corbett and Vernon joined the majority in agreeing to send the Harrison site to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval.

A sticking point with the Ellis site was the need to demolish a park maintenance building and a nearby recreation maintenance building and build a new joint maintenance facility on the site of the latter at a cost of $1.3 million.

The city has revenue from the city’s local-option sales tax for flood recovery to help with the cost, but Gulick made the point that the city had not planned in the near term to replace the buildings until the rec center proposal surfaced.

FEMA has set a deadline of April 1 for the city to come up with a site for the recreation center, which has been destined for a number of sites over the last couple of years, most recently Cleveland Park where neighbors objected.

Joe O’Hern, the city’s director of development services, last night said the city will need to ask FEMA for an extension on the deadline to have the center built. It was supposed to have been in place by June 30, O’Hern said.

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