Upper Arlington community center likely on May ballot

NATE ELLIS
nellis@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

If a task force determines it's feasible to build and operate a community center in Upper Arlington, local voters likely will be asked if they support the plan next May, City Manager Steve Schoeny said.

At present, neither the Community Center Feasibility Task Force nor the three consultant firms being paid a total of $145,000 to aid the group's study have identified potential locations for a center, and details about costs, and what programs would be offered still are being reviewed.

That information is expected to materialize within the next three months. The 16-member task force appointed by Upper Arlington City Council one year ago intends to make a recommendation by Dec. 7 about whether the city has a site for a facility and a plan for financing construction and ongoing operations.

Schoeny told task force members Aug. 12 that if their recommendation is to proceed and if City Council agrees, the issue would be placed before voters next spring.

"Council has committed to take something to the ballot for the voters to have a decision point on whether or not to move forward with a community center," Schoeny said. "The first opportunity and frankly, the most likely opportunity for that to happen, would be May of 2021."

Schoeny said he expects the task force to tell council that a community center is not feasible because the project can't be funded or there is no suitable site, or that task force members have identified a site and financing based on community feedback that will be gathered over the next three months.

A third option, he said, could be that the task force would bring forward a financing plan and two potential facility sites, thereby allowing council members to choose where the community center would be built.

From there, if deemed feasible, Upper Arlington residents will decide if the city will invest in the project.

"From a practical matter, what goes on the ballot is an authority to spend up to X million dollars on a community center and to issue bonds to finance it," Schoeny said. "My hope is that we're in a position where there's not a tax increase associated with this.

"I think we're going to work really hard for that."

Schoeny said "there's never a good time" to ask for a tax increase and acknowledged the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic complicates that.

Task force member Kelly Boggs-Lape asked if the "optics" of pushing for a community center project at this time are favorable.

"If we're going to do it, it will be cheaper now than it ever will be," Schoeny said. "Interest rates are incredibly low. Construction costs are coming down."

He said "north of 60%" of city revenue comes from income taxes paid by people who work in Upper Arlington, and thus far this year, those withholdings "are up a little over 3%" from 2019.

Task force member Greg Comfort agreed the pandemic shouldn't dissuade a positive recommendation for a community center, if study and community feedback conclude the project is feasible.

"We hope COVID doesn't define the next 50 years of who we are and what we're doing," Comfort said. "We're talking about the next 50 years and COVID, we hope, is going to be a memory within the next year."

Aaron Domini, a principal at OHM Advisors, one of the firms consulting with the task force, said the plan is to "cast a wide net" for potential sites but to narrow the options through preselection criteria that include efforts to maintain parkland in the city.

He added the task force would seek to find sites that are centrally located, accessible to various modes of transportation and that support multigenerational activities.

Potential sites that the city already has control of or could gain control of would be prioritized, Domini said.

"Once we run it through the preselection criteria, we're going to try to run it down to three or less sites," he said. "My guess is that it might be down to two."

From there, the task force is expected to establish a unit cost per square foot, as well as the amount of revenue each space in the building would generate per square foot.

While promising task force members the cost wouldn't be "$70 million," Schoeny said, the process would determine "how many tens of millions of dollars the facility is going to cost."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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