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Community Center condensed

City signs 6-month lease, cuts back on space

SOLON– The city will be downsizing its community center starting Jan. 1.
In an attempt to control costs, city representatives negotiated a new six-month lease with the Solon Community School District for the former middle school at 313 S. Iowa St.
The new lease was approved by council members at a Dec. 4 meeting, and awaits consideration by the school board later this month.
The city is reducing the amount of space it utilizes, and the new agreement excludes the classroom wings and annex, while retaining access for the gymnasium, lobby and adjacent offices, cafeteria and kitchen, band room, music room, batting cages, auditorium lobby and auditorium (for weekly movies).
The lower level of the gym will also be included in the new lease.
The city has been operating the community center since June of 2018, but utility costs have been dogging the project.
At the Dec. 4 session, City Administrator Cami Rasmussen outlined the steps taken to address the rising expenses.
“Last year the utility bills came in at close to $80,000, higher than we expected,” Rasmussen reported.
In July, she said, city and school committees met to talk about future of community center, she said. “We wanted to start that conversation with the school as to how can we create a sustainable opportunity to keep a community center presence.”
But when October came, the bills were even higher than the previous year, she noted, prompting more meetings.
Council members Lauren Whitehead and Steve Duncan, along with Public Works Director Scott Kleppe, Rasmussen and members of the recreation advisory team came to the conclusion the city had to reduce space.
There was little demand for the classroom wings, Rasmussen stated, and while the Solon Centennial Lions Club initially utilized the annex, the club has since found another location.
The city had budgeted $44,000 for utility costs for the 2019-20 fiscal year, she said, and will be on track to hit that in January.
Eliminating the classroom wings will impact Jordan Creek Church and the fledgling Solon History Center, while the existing weight room will be moved below the gymnasium. Rasmussen said the city will work with entities using space to relocate them to other areas of the community center if possible.
The new lease also attempts to limit the city’s utility costs by restricting the city contribution to the budgeted $44,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30.
“That is essentially what the council budgeted for this year,” Rasmussen noted.
Currently, she said, utility expenses at the community center have reached $35,000, including December.
Any rental fees the city receives after Jan. 1 will go to offset the remaining heating and cooling costs, she added.
The lease will be reconsidered at the end of the fiscal year, she noted.
“The consensus of all parties was there’s a lot of money being invested in the utilities that would possibly be better spent on a different facility or a new facility,” Rasmussen commented.
She suggested the city council members discuss possible long-term solutions as it tackles 2020-21 budget planning this winter.
The reality, council member Steve Duncan said, is “we went down this path not knowing what we had in front of us as far as people wanting to use it.”
With those numbers now in hand, he said, “We can tell by the use it’s not the use that I think we all envisioned for the first year.”
Solon’s location between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City provides a lot of opportunities for residents, he said.
Duncan said the city and school need to look at a long-range plan for a joint facility.
The cost of the recent Empire Fitness and Nutrition building doesn’t seem out of reach, he said, although the city would need to find land for any new construction.
“Here’s this elephant in the room, the $80,000 utility bill,” Duncan said. “They don’t want that bill, we don’t want that bill… and what would they do if they had that bill? Well, they wouldn’t keep funding that either.”
Parts of the building are not useful, he said, so the city tried to narrow its focus. The auditorium is in need of repairs, and the experience is forcing the city to look at the broader picture.
“We’ve all come to the realization that not all of that building is in our long-term best interests,” he said.
Everyone involved felt comfortable with the new lease, he added.
“This is probably the best that we could strike right now,” Duncan said.
Council member Lauren Whitehead suggested the city needs to finish what it started while staying responsible financially.
“We aren’t changing our commitment to the programming,” she said. “We want to maintain the programming and we want to grow. What we have to figure out is the space. That’s just the reality we’re grappling with.”
Mayor Pro Tempore Mark Prentice said he was happy with the relationship between the city and the school.
“They’ve been terrific to work with, they really have.” Rasmussen said.