YMCA market study brings about familiar discussion

Community center topic returns to spotlight


Clint Riese
News Editor

Major players in the Forest Lake area are combining to test the waters regarding a long-contemplated amenity. The city, school district and Fairview Lakes Medical Center are going in on a market study to gauge interest in a YMCA and determine a building project’s feasible scope.

The three local entities, along with YMCA, will each pay $6,250 for the study, which will take up to five months to conduct.

The idea of a local community center has gained traction a few times since 2000, but, whether floated by task force or private development company, has never materialized into action.

The study comes on the heels of the Forest Lake School Board’s recent decision to hold a referendum May 20 for a $176 million bond request for facility improvements. Introducing the topic to the City Council Dec. 16, City Administrator Aaron Parrish said parts of a YMCA would potentially be compatible with elements in the school’s facility plan.

If the market study finds it feasible to move discussion further, it also will help clarify the financial role of each entity involved in the study. Even that, Parrish said, would be but one small step in a long journey to fruition.

“What we’re looking at here is just beginning the conversation,” he said. “If this would proceed, this would be a multiyear operation.”

Council members expressed concern with the timing of the study, which comes at the start of a year where taxpayers will begin to pay for the $18.5 million Forest Lake City Center project. For some on the council, assurance of the preliminary nature of the YMCA discussion was enough to secure a vote approving the study.

“If we’re in for $6,000, just to say ‘go’ or ‘no go’ to even think about something further, that makes sense to me,” Susan Young said.

Ben Winnick moved approval of the study, but did so “halfheartedly.”

“There are a lot of benefits to having a facility like this, and if it’s done right, it would be wonderful,” he said. “But to do a study at this point without having the heart to go forward. … I’m challenging us all to say, ‘Are we willing to really go there, especially after we just spent $22 million (on bonds for the City Center)?’”

Pursuing the possibility of a community center is a goal Councilwoman Molly Bonnett laid out when she interviewed for a council opening this summer, and she has been active in talks with the study’s partners.

“I feel very strongly that a ‘Y’ meets a lot of the criteria that has been laid out to me as what our council would be looking for as far as not having the responsibility to operate this entity, as far as making sure that money to get the capital would come from the footprint it would serve,” she said.

Mayor Chris Johnson said it is hard to put the potential project in context without the information the market study will provide.

“This at least gets the conversation started, gathers some information for everybody to look at,” he said.

Mike Freer was the lone council member to vote against the study. Citing the City Center, he said he adamantly opposes committing finances to what would be another multimillion-dollar project and said he expects residents would also lack an appetite for doing so.

“Let’s figure out how much the city is even willing to have a conversation about it before we start doing a study,” he said. “This is just not a good idea at this point.”

In the big picture of community centers, Parrish explained the benefits of the YMCA model. YMCA programming is oriented toward community partnerships, and each facility’s amenities can be tailored to fit a community’s needs, Parrish said. YMCA offers institutional capacity for fundraising, does not build until capital costs are secured and features a nimble labor model that helps to avoid operational deficits, he added.

In 2007, the Chain of Lakes YMCA was built in Lino Lakes for $8.6 million.