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New rec site raises questions

A crowd of about 50 people attended a meeting at Douglas County Public Works Tuesday to talk about a proposal to build a new Lakes Area Recreation facility at the old Jefferson High School site. LAR Director Fritz Bukowski is shown front left. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

Questions are swirling around a plan to build a $5 million facility for Lakes Area Recreation on the former Jefferson High School site in Alexandria that would also include a family wellness campus.

Where will the money come from? Would a new LAR building duplicate other recreational programs in the area? Is it really needed? Why does LAR want to move out of the space in the services center building it's leasing from the county?

Those concerns and more were raised during an unprecedented public meeting between local government leaders Tuesday at the Public Works Building. Attendees included LAR joint powers contributors — the Alexandria City Council, Alexandria School District 206 Board and township boards for Alexandria and LaGrand — along with Douglas County Board members.

Others were there too, including representatives of the Lakes Area Economic Development Authority, Alexandria Area YMCA, ORB Management and board members from other townships that contribute to LAR.

In all, about 50 people attended.

After more than an hour of discussion, LAR Board Chairman Patrick Running said the next steps will be to perform an unbiased analysis of recreational needs in the area, complete a strategic plan and form an exploratory committee to determine the feasibility and scope of the plan.

The clock, however, is ticking.

Brent Smith, owner of Aagard and the property on the Jefferson site who plans to build the wellness center, said the state has agreed to provide $1.4 million toward the LAR facility if that amount is matched by non-state entities. The money must be committed by the end of the year and the money could only be used for public infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water, and not the actual building.

Smith said he and his wife, Sally, would contribute $700,000 in cash and land, leaving the LAR joint powers authority to come up with the rest of the money.

For the plan to work, Nicole Fernholz with the Lakes Area Economic Development Authority said that the authority would have to own the land and bonds would have to be supported by a sales tax that would would have to approved by voters.

The money the LAR spends on leasing, about $30,000 a year at the services center and $50,000 for the Spirit building that's used for gymnastics, would be shifted to pay for the new facility at the Jefferson site.

New recreational opportunities

Running said the new LAR facility could include a gymnastic center, locker rooms, indoor track facilities, a cardio area, and a multi-purpose room for the Silver Sneakers program, table tennis and birthday parties.

Another key component, he said, would be an indoor playground where kids could play year-round — something that is not available in Alexandria. He said the playground could include a wide variety of play structures and equipment, and described it as a "McDonald's on steroids."

Running emphasized that the new recreational amenities are still in the exploratory stage. Some items may be scaled back or dropped and others, such as a basketball court, could be added.

"Money is the big driver," he said.

City concerns

City leaders, including Mayor Sara Carlson, felt the project is moving too fast.

"I don't even know why we're even starting to explore building something when we haven't even established the need," she said.

Carlson added that some of the same recreation programs may already be offered through the YMCA or the school district.

She also expressed disappointment with LAR Director Fritz Bukowski, saying that he should be the one answering questions, not Running. Carlson said she has repeatedly asked Bukowski for a strategic plan or a "plan B" in case the LAR has to move out of the services center, but that he hasn't done so.

"That is your job," she told Bukowski.

Council member Todd Jensen was also concerned about going forward with an exploratory committee, surveying work and financial plans.

"We need to back this up," he said. "Right now, it's full guns blazing."

Jensen said the LAR should hire an outside group to complete a needs assessment to make sure LAR is not competing with the private sector or duplicating YMCA programs.

Why move?

City leaders wanted to know why the LAR wanted to move out of the service center.

County Commissioner Owen Miller said that about a year ago, the county looked at how much the LAR was paying for rent and there was talk of increasing the rent or removing some of the space LAR was using, but the board decided to keep the rent the same until April 2019.

Bukowski said that was correct, but added that some commissioners may not be aware that in November, County Coordinator Heather Schlangen presented him with a lease that took away LAR's space for exercise and cardio rooms. He said he was told to either sign the lease or be out in 30 days.

"That's where the concern happened. I don't know if you knew that," Bukowski told Miller.

Shortly after that, Bukowski said, he began talking with Smith about moving to the Jefferson site.

Bukowski cited other reasons for moving. He said the lease with the county runs year-to-year while LAR wants a longer agreement.

"If we had a 10-year lease with the county, we'd be very happy," he said.

The gymnastics space in the Spirit building also has problems, Bukowski said. It's for sale, meaning the new owners could ask the LAR to vacate the building. Also, the roof leaks, the heating system isn't working properly, the sewer has backed up, and the pit area has flooded. "There's lots of issues with the building," he said.

Bukowski said he looked at many other rental options in the area but they all cost too much money.

"If someone could build us a building and give us a 10- to 15-year lease, we'd be all over that," he said.

The Jefferson site provides an ideal location — in the middle of Alexandria, where kids could easily bike to, according to LAR leaders.

An offer from the Y

Megan Burkhammer, a member of the Alexandria Area YMCA Board, extended an invitation to the LAR.

"We've got space — let's partner," she told Bukowski. "We're very good at raising money without duplicating tax dollars."

Bukowski said that he met several times with the YMCA's former CEO, Conrad Bostron, about taking over the YMCA's swimming program but the Y wanted more money than the LAR was willing to give.

Bukowski added that having the LAR cut programs was not a solution.

"It's how we survive," he said.

Wellness center

Smith said his vision for the Jefferson site was to make the highest or best use of the property and focusing on wellness and healthy immune systems will do that.

The stated purpose of the center is "to help people enjoy their God-given potential to live healthy, service-filled lives."

The center would take a holistic approach to health, Smith said, and could include chiropractic care, mental health services, acupuncture and more.

Smith said the location is ideal — near the hospital and Alexandria Technical and Community College. He said the center may help draw more college students here.

Having the LAR on the property could be "synergistic," Smith said, adding that he plans to build the wellness center even if the LAR doesn't move to the site.

Smith said he would like to establish partnerships with the college, PrimeWest, Horizon Public Health and the hospital to make Alexandria a "destination for wellness."

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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