Former task force leaders still believe project is viable but not right now
Will a community center ever be built in Forest Lake?
It was more than a decade ago when key community leaders first gathered to begin planning for a community facility that would serve as a key gathering place for residents of the newly combined city and township.
Alan Bakke, one of the key proponents of the facility and a task force co-chair, believed a community center would be a key piece in bringing the people of the former city and township together.
Bakke started work on the project in June of 2001 and led the first mass meeting of community stakeholders in August of that year. Now more than 11 years later the community center is still a plan on the shelf with some key parts of it completed in piecemeal fashion.
But is the project as a whole dead?
Bakke and Ray Daninger, a former mayor and task force co-chair, don’t believe it is in the scrap yard. While the timing today is not right, the plan may again become viable, the two men said this week.
For Daninger and Bakke, the current top priority is a new municipal complex. The Forest Lake City Council has voted to move forward with a bonding program for a $22.5 million complex on the Northland Mall site on south Highway 61.
Both Bakke and Daninger are on board supporting the municipal complex. Daninger, who previously chaired the city’s Economic Development Authority, was recently appointed to the EDA. It is the EDA that will issue bonds to back the Northland Mall project.
“I think they can be handled separately,” Daninger said of the municipal project and a future community center effort. Daninger concedes that the community center timing is not right for now.
“It’s the pecking order,” Daninger said. “The need is more for the city hall complex.”
He calls the plan for a new city hall complex a “good move” for the city and one that will easily replace any lost tax dollars from the city’s purchase of the enclosed mall building. With redevelopment of the current city hall and Youth Service Bureau properties in the 200 block of N. Lake Street, a major property tax gain can be realized, the former mayor said.
Add in new commercial property taxes produced by the development of outlots on the mall site and the benefit is even greater, Daninger said.
No one has invested more time in the community center effort than Bakke. While the community center task force has been inactive for years, Bakke continues to follow the issue and look for ways to see it built.
The construction of the Forest Lake Sports Center by the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association and the city’s efforts to build the Fenway Athletic Complex solved two of the major pieces once planned for the community center in the Headwaters development south of Highway 97 and east of Fenway Avenue.
“The entire plan would have been about the same amount of money,” Bakke said of the $22.5 million the city plans to spend and the dollars that would have been needed to build a community center during the past decade. The early community center cost estimates were in the same range, he said.
The community center plan included the athletic fields, two ice sheets, a community center with gyms, a fitness center meeting rooms, and an indoor swimming pool.
When a major grant application failed to materialize, the project ran into serious financial hurdles that could not be cleared, Bakke said. “There just wasn’t enough support in the community to pass a bond referendum,” he added.
The support waned even more when the housing market hit hard times in 2007. “What we didn’t predict was that the economy was going to crash,” Bakke said.
Bakke is among those who believe the tide will turn. He said community conversations led by Mayor Chris Johnson in 2012 confirmed that public interest in a community center remains strong.
With the ice arena and athletic fields completed, Bakke said some $12 million would be needed to complete the facility today. The center would be built on land owned by the city adjacent to the ice arena and athletic fields.
When that happens is anyone’s guess, both Bakke and Daninger said.
“It all boiled down to money,” Daninger said of the stalled plan. “I’d still like to see it on the want list.”
“It’s a no starter for the moment,” Bakke said.
But the tax impact is more favorable today, he added. When the $20 million plus project was considered, the tax impact was estimated at roughly $75 per $100,000 of property value. No recent calculations have been made.
Bakke is not giving up hope.
“The property is still there,” he said. “I’d like to see it happen. We need it. People want it.”