Mark Windschitl admits it took some convincing to bring him around. When he first heard the idea of creating a regional curling center, the mayor of Chaska recalls, “I thought, ‘What are we thinking about?’ ”
A plan to put in new playground equipment, trails, picnic shelters and redo a beach at a city park had morphed into a much more ambitious venture that also encompassed a 40,000-square-foot complex with curling rinks, an event center and a city-supported ale house, at a cost capped at $20 million.
Chaska is not the only place dreaming big when it comes to sports. Twin Cities suburbs are in the midst of a major boom in recreational facilities — an amenities arms race in which each is keenly conscious of what other cities are cooking up.
Proposals, prices for suburban rec amenities vary widely
Source: Individual city documents, plans
C.J. Sinner, Star Tribune
Shakopee is weighing $32 million in projects. Eden Prairie is completing the first phase of a $21 million aquatic center whose cost billowed from a mere $3 million. Woodbury is struggling to complete the glitziest features of a $22 million sports center expansion.
Driving the building boom are a number of factors, including a desire to attract young, more affluent families. Such amenities build civic pride and create community gathering places, city leaders say.
“If you look across communities in the Twin Cities and you talk to mayors, residents, Realtors, you learn that a lot of communities have a strong point, a feature, something that makes them stand out,” said Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens. “Those things are important for marketing your community.”
Critics say the projects are way over the top, especially considering the long-term costs to operate and maintain them. They worry that cities are vying for smaller shares of a shrinking market as suburban growth rates slow and the number of children dwindles.
And they complain that community leaders are dodging the democratic process.
Chaska is already studded with major city-owned recreational amenities, not all of them prospering. Its latest project was never subjected to a citywide referendum.
“They didn’t want to put it up for a vote, because they knew it would have gotten voted down,” resident Jeff Kuhn said. He and other residents also aren’t happy that debt service on the project will be paid by a new “Community Building Fund” that adds $30 a year to taxpayers’ bills.
The boom in sports facilities is the latest version of a flawed strategy by cities — “building bling to accelerate growth,” said Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a Brainerd-based community development organization. “You could be like the guy who has the big house and the big truck that are all under water.”
City officials argue that the projects needn’t reap profits any more than do police or fire.
“Shakopee doesn’t need or want anything extraordinarily grandiose” said Mayor Brad Tabke. “But a better community center is a critical piece in being a place where all generations, all racial backgrounds, can gather and have something to do, run into people they know, meet people they don’t.”
The biggest dollar figures are for ideas still awaiting approval: Shakopee’s $32 million, on which open houses are coming up soon, and a $48 million community center proposal in St. Louis Park that remains on hold.
The boom is taking place amid a historic shift. The year 2015 marks the first time when all five purely suburban counties are facing projected drops in the number of children.
Birthrates are plunging, and child numbers in some counties are already dropping. The Burnsville Athletic Club has 3,500 participants — about half as many as a decade ago.
Falling numbers may tempt suburbs to dial up the dazzle to snatch pieces of a shrinking pie.
Even affluent Edina, a major draw with nationally ranked schools, claims to have installed a $12 million indoor sports dome and rink out of concern for its competitive position — and Mayor Jim Hovland has conceded the price caused a “big gulp.”
The boom is also taking place amid reminders of the risks cities face in sports amenities.
Memories remain fresh of the Vadnais Heights fiasco. The city’s bond rating skidded to the “junk” category after it refused to rescue a foundering $26 million sports complex.
And for years, cities have struggled with losses from municipal golf.
Fiscal conservatives say cities are doing things best left to the private sector. “If it’s in the Yellow Pages, a city shouldn’t be doing it,” said Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota think tank.
“My recreational hobby is stock car racing,” said veteran Shakopee Council Member Matt Lehman. “Where is the government when it comes to paying for my tires or my oil or my engine? And why then is it my responsibility to pay for Johnny’s hockey?”
Kuhn, in Chaska, agrees. “It’s not the city’s job to be in business,” he said. “They should be fixing the streets.”
Tugs and pulls
But powerful inducements exist.
Youth athletic organizations are highly organized lobbying forces in the ’burbs. And city councils and veteran staffers are thrilled when some national publication names their town one of the Best Places to Live in America. The selectors for that honor often heap praise on lavish spending. In 2014, Money magazine singled out Woodbury’s indoor Central Park and mammoth Bielenberg Sports Center.
While not as important as schools, impressive amenities such as Woodbury’s can be an attraction for home buyers, said Mike DeVoe, president of Ryland Homes of Minnesota, a leading homebuilder.
But cities that go that route also create risks.
Woodbury’s deal with a restaurant operator for upscale dining inside its new sports center collapsed, leaving the city in prolonged litigation. The pro soccer team Minnesota United FC decided against training there, after paying to add extra space. And a nearly $1 million fully accessible playground is unfinished, waiting for funds from a nonprofit.
The city’s parks chief, Bob Klatt, said the hiccups are minor over the long run. “I believe we will have very nice entities in those spaces when all is said and done.”
Cities also encounter difficulties from competing cities.
Savage launched itself into the domed sports facility business at a moment when Edina didn’t have one and it wasn’t evident that closer-to-home peers like Chaska and Shakopee might build one. Now both talk openly of the possibility.
Shakopee Mayor Tabke said of major new amenities his city is pondering, “the turf field has fallen toward the bottom of our list, partly to not negatively impact” Savage. It is being considered, though. “We have to look out for own interests: We have a really difficult time getting time in their dome. It’s packed,” he said.
Savage itself swiped business from others when it opened its own dome in 2012. The Burnsville Athletic Club moved activities from Rosemount, Burnsville and Chanhassen, said Vice President Bill John.
Last year, Farmington considered replacing its aging outdoor pool with a water park costing up to $10 million, but held off after a lukewarm reception from residents.
City Council members wondered if a water park could make money when similar facilities in nearby Eagan and Apple Valley have had stagnant to falling attendance. They were told that a feasibility study prepared at the city’s expense had outlined how to turn a profit. Among other things, the study suggested Farmington’s water park should have a “unique feature” that other cities didn’t have.
Mayor Todd Larson said the city won’t proceed without a referendum. “It’s too much money to make a decision without getting voter input,” he said. The city is still digesting debt from building a city hall, fire station and maintenance facility when it was growing fast in the early 2000s.
Not every city believes referendums are necessary.
Shakopee residents have three times rejected referendums to build or enlarge a community center. Yet the city is considering bypassing a vote despite a recent community survey showing there’s still plenty of opposition.
Tabke said surveys aren’t a binding vote. “When people say something’s only getting 30 or 40 percent support, I say that even 25 percent support, in a community our size, that’s still 10,000 people — a pretty good market share to get something done.”
Forest Lake has seen political turmoil over a divided City Council’s decision to bypass a referendum in approving $8.9 million, plus the land, as part of a $13 million YMCA. None of the three council proponents is any longer in office.
But City Administrator Aaron Parrish said the council made the prudent call, given the risks of building the city’s own community center.
“As we looked around the area, we didn’t find one that isn’t running an operating deficit, even those regarded as more successful,” he said. “It can be $200,000 to $800,000 a year,” where in Forest Lake that’s now all in the hands of the Y.
Tensions in Eden Prairie sprang up around the same issue. In 2005, voters rejected a $3.3 million pool upgrade referendum. City officials proceeded to ponder and then reject a $10 million option in favor of a $16.5 million upgrade.
A $1.3 million water slide was “the cherry on top” of enhancements that brought the final cost to $20.9 million, said resident Dan Kitrell. And this time, voter approval wasn’t required.
“Whether it’s $10 million or $21 million, it really should be up to the voters to let them decide where these things fit into their priorities,” Kitrell said. Last fall, a City Council candidate who made criticisms of the project the centerpiece of his campaign drew almost 30 percent of the vote.
Mayor Tyra-Lukens said cities make many spending decisions without voter approval. At a council meeting last year, she said that if the city can build a bridge without a referendum, it shouldn’t need one for the aquatic center. She considers both essential improvements in the city’s infrastructure. A local youth swimming club is contributing $500,000 to the project.
Eden Prairie Parks and Recreation Director Jay Lotthammer believes the new aquatic complex will spark a jump in community center membership, making the center self-supporting by 2017.
But that’s what officials were thinking in 2008, after an $11.2 million project doubled the center’s size, adding a gym, skating rink and fitness center. At the time, they said they thought the facility could break even by 2010.
That hasn’t happened, though losses have narrowed. Kitrell said he is troubled that the community center has been unable to cover its costs despite increases in both memberships and fees.
Blaine took a seemingly painless path in creating a $7 million, 38-acre athletic complex. It simply pooled funds that developers are required to give it for parks.
But homebuilders say that’s a dodge that makes a project look free while masking the true source — higher prices for buyers of new homes.
Mayor Tom Ryan concedes it “gets built into the price of a house,” but said “so far there’s been no negative discussion.” Bottom line, he added: “When I started, there was no fund at all. The money we put in was peanuts compared to today.”
Betting on curling
In contrast to lots of suburbs, Chaska isn’t pretending it’s aiming to serve just its own constituents with the new curling center.
But Mayor Windschitl says he has come to believe the curling-restaurant concept fits a long-term goal to transform a vacant corner into a unique destination to draw visitors.
A recent event to promote the curling center now under construction attracted people from south and west suburbs and cities south of the metro like St. Peter and Mankato, he said. “Right now the closest place for them to play is Blaine,” he said. “We would be a shorter drive.”
The new complex’s six ice sheets cannot be used for other activities like skating because the ice surface is pebbled for curling stones. Making and maintaining the ice is a highly specialized skill, and the city is adding an experienced curling icemaker as well as an arena manager to its payroll.
“There’s no doubt we are taking a bold step,” Windschitl said.
But Marohn wonders if it’s wise to have a facility tied to a single use. “If for some reason in 10 years curling isn’t the hot thing anymore, then they’re stuck with a white elephant.”