Tribune editorial: Indoor center effort needs transparency

Tribune editorial: Indoor center effort needs transparency

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Tom Diehl, a consultant with GreenPlay, talks about the feasibility study for a proposed $114.5 million indoor community recreation complex for Bismarck during a public information meeting on Wednesday night. 

No one can accuse the Bismarck Park Board of not striving to improve facilities over the years. Sometimes, however, board members have dreamed bigger than the city’s residents.

Bismarck can be proud of its parks, pools, walking and riding trails, and other facilities. There’s always room for improvement, and the park district has unveiled a preliminary proposal for an almost $114.5 million indoor recreation complex.

The draft concept has a main building and a separate building with an ice arena, with a courtyard between. The draft plan also includes a four-lane running and walking track and an “adventure trail,” an indoor cross country track with elevation and obstacles. Other recommendations include six indoor tennis courts, five indoor pickleball courts, two indoor basketball courts, four racquetball courts and an indoor playground.

It’s an impressive proposal that would no doubt make Bismarck more attractive to present and future residents. The Tribune editorial board has two issues with the proposal as it was presented at a recent community meeting.

First, the park district proposes to fund the project through an increase in the sales tax along with private donations. Bismarck just increased its sales tax by a half percent in April to fund road construction. The voter-approved increase sunsets in 10 years. Bismarck residents now pay 7% in sales tax: 5% to the state, 0.5% to Burleigh County and 1.5% to the city.

We question whether voters would approve another increase so soon. While the sales tax is paid by both residents and visitors, we believe the tax places a burden on those who can least afford it. We need to be cautious about high we take the sales tax. It would be best to fund the project through donations.

Secondly, the Tribune is concerned that the projected revenue from the complex would be $2.6 million each year while projected expenses would be $3.1 million, with the difference covered by the park district’s budget. Where does the park district expect to find the extra money?

We realize this is a preliminary proposal, but the park district has an ambitious schedule with a possible public vote in June 2020. If approved by voters, the complex could open by 2023.

The park district needs to be transparent about the process. It needs to clarify how operational expenses for the complex will be handled. What will be the impact on taxpayers? The district needs to avoid seeking a sales tax increase and focus on private donations. Bismarck residents also need to know where the complex will be built.

In 2006, the park district proposed the People, Parks and Places initiative that included an aquatics and wellness center. It was to be funded by a sales tax increase but was soundly rejected by voters. A private group, Streamline, was formed in 2007 that raised money to build the center on the campus of Bismarck State College.

The center was later leased to the park district. The center is an excellent addition to the city, but some still feel the park district went around voters’ wishes. That’s why transparency will be essential during future discussions on the indoor complex.

The Tribune believes the complex would be good for the community, but if done it needs to be affordable and fiscally sound.

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