The Bismarck Parks and Recreation Department recently sent out a survey regarding a potential recreational complex. I’m sure many readers remember that a measure to help pay for a new complex failed at the ballot last summer.
We talk a lot about how to make our local community a place where people want to live and work. Accessible recreational opportunities are a part of that. In many ways, a new recreational center could be a great way to invest in our community.
There is no doubt that the past vote on the recreation center faced headwinds from the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. But on top of poor timing, I think there are a lot of other issues that need to be addressed before any proposal goes before the voters again.
It’s unclear to me from the publicly available documents how it was determined what the demand was for additional activity space. I’m sure many people have their own guesses on what additional space might be necessary, but that needs to be complemented with actual data on utilization of current facilities.
Knowing this sort of information would be important for planning the scale of whatever future project may be in store. Although surveys are important, planning should go beyond just asking people what they think a new facility might need. By polling a relatively small number of advocates for certain activities in the community, it should be pretty clear what the results are going to be, but more data than that is necessary.
There are aspects of the proposal that simply would not exist if it wasn’t for Parks and Recreation facilities, namely indoor tennis, hockey and turf space. It would make sense for any new facility to focus on those activities while leaving other parts to organizations that are capable of meeting the community’s needs.
A new recreation center should also take into consideration existing community facilities, including public, private and nonprofit organizations. It’s unclear to me how engaged these other organizations were in the planning process, or how their facilities were considered when the Parks and Recreation facility plan was put together, but it’s obvious that there are organizations and businesses that play a large part in what’s currently available to members of our community, and that shouldn’t be ignored.
This all leads to cost, which the previous proposal landed at approximately $108 million, with about 10% being raised from donations. Maybe after a new review of the needs of the community, the cost will be less, but maybe not. Either way, perhaps voters would be more inclined to support a project that had more support from private donors and stakeholders as well.
In Fargo, 60% of their $77 million newly planned recreation center will be privately fundraised. When Choice Health and Fitness was built in Grand Forks in 2012, the entire project was privately fundraised. It seems like there could be additional room for private fundraising in a Bismarck proposal.
I write all these things because if or when a new recreation complex is proposed, I want it to succeed. I think it would be a great benefit to our city, but in order to see it realized, there needs to be a plan that is targeted to the needs of the community and is responsible to taxpayers.
After leaving for a few years to work on Capitol Hill and study economics at the University of North Dakota, Sean Cleary now lives with his wife in his hometown of Bismarck.