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September 01, 2008 6:38 am

Save-the-gym effort asks more time

Written by Tribune Staff

Suggestions include grants and cap tax, move of school site
“What we're talking about is grants. If we use grant money, it isn't going to cost anything.”
Ric Rodriguez for save the gym committee
Efforts to convert the old Powell High School Gymnasium into a community center continued last week with a plan proposed to city and school officials.
Ric Rodriguez, speaking for the Powell Gym Improvement Project, told a joint meeting Tuesday, Aug. 26, of the school board and City Council that the facility can be an asset to the community and asked that School District No. 1 and the city cooperate in finding a way to use the gym.
“I see a facility that has a lot of potential,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the 58,000-square foot building, which includes two large gyms, could house a variety of activities. The building also includes a weightroom and space that could accommodate racquetball courts and a walking track, classrooms and offices.
In his report, Rodriguez addressed the structural condition of the building, funding for the project and the needs of the school district. He asked that the school board and city council each appoint a staff person to work with his committee and schedule regular meetings about the gym.
The school district has vacated the building and currently plans to demolish it in order to build a new middle school on the site. Rodriguez instead suggests the school district turn the building over to the city, which would then put management in the hands of a separate entity.
Addressing the question of funding, Rodriguez admitted “it's not cheap,” but is possible. He cited Worland, where the old middle school was converted to a community center through the use of grant money and a capital facilities tax.
“We can use the capital facilities tax to leverage the grant proposals,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he believes a grant of $1.5 million would be adequate to correct the facility's structural problems identified when the state of Wyoming evaluated the state's schools in 2001. That evaluation in 2001 found that the gym did not meet standards in the Uniform Building Code regarding the building's ability to withstand seismic events. Remedies would require approximately $1.5 million.
School board member Dee Heny questioned Rodriguez's figures, referring to another assessment of the building that estimated costs of more than $4 million.
“We were given much higher figures than that,” Heny said.
Rodriguez, however, said an assessment of the building arranged for by his committee reported the building's shortcomings were not as serious. Further, he argued that, while the school district would have had to meet those requirements to continue using the gym, the city would not have to meet them if the gym was handed to them as an existing structure, unless major renovation was done.
“We would not have to bring it up to the Uniform Building Code,” Rodriguez said. “We would only have to meet codes in effect when the building was built.”
Rodriguez said donations and income from a capital facility tax could be used to build an endowment to help pay for operating building, which last year cost the school district approximately $200,000 per month, and fees and rentals for use of the building also would provide income.
Councilman John Wetzel complained that Rodriguez's figures were not enough to help him decide whether to support the project.
“After you've thrown out all these figures, what's the final cost?” Wetzel said.
“I don't know right now,” Rodriguez answered. “What we're talking about is grants. If we use grant money, it's not going to cost anything.”
Wetzel replied that he needed more information than that to make a decision, and would also need to know how those costs would compare to building a new community center.
“What if the grants don't come through or the tax goes down in smoke?”
Josh Shorb, city councilman
The issue for the school district is that the site of the gym currently is the site preferred by the Wyoming School Facilities Commission for a new middle school.
According to the commission's guidelines, while the school could choose a different site, the state would not pay for the purchase of any land. In addition, the district would have to pay for any infrastructure necessary to build the school on the site.
The district also is hesitant to delay designating a site because the commission authorized money for designing the school, and a site must be designated to receive that money. A delay would push the project back two or more years, and the district is concerned about increased enrollment.
“We're faced with increased enrollment,” said school board chairman Dave Northrup. “We're being pressured by the SFC to find a site.”
Rodriguez offered two suggestions for a middle school site that would allow the gym to stay. His first proposal was a land exchange between the city and the school district, with the school being built on the site of the current softball complex in Homesteader Park. He said the city could then relocate the softball complex to a site east of the Fitch Building.
Both school and city officials raised concerns about the proposal to relocate the softball fields across Road 8.
City officials questioned the location because it presents drainage and sewer issues.
Mitchell said the district would prefer to keep the school where it is.
“We've talked about keeping it downtown,” Mitchell said. “It's an advantage to kids who walk to school.”
Rodriguez's second proposal was to build the school on the site of the old high school and the auditorium/natatorium, which will be demolished as soon as the district doesn't need them. The city would have to abandon Evarts Street between Second and Third to accommodate the building.
To meet the size requirements for a middle school site, the school grounds would include the site of the present middle school. That would require that the city to abandon a portion of Third Street as well to meet the state's safety requirements.
In response to that plan, city officials said while abandoning Evarts Street would not be a problem, they did not feel the city should abandon Third.
Councilman Josh Shorb expressed concern about acquiring the property before funding is certain.
“What if the grants don't come through or the tax goes down in smoke?” Shorb said.
Mangold asked what sort of a timeline the committee was requesting.
“We would like to have enough time to find funding,” Rodriguez said.
Northrup asked how much time that would take and Rodriguez said eight to 10 months, based on how long it took Worland to win approval for their grant.
“Obviously we have a lot of questions you have to answer and the city has some to answer,” Mangold said.
After appointing Councilman Jim Hillberry as the council's liaison with the committee, Mangold said, “We'll get back together.”