Public weighs in on rec center

FAIRMONT — Questions about a proposed $24.7 million community center in Fairmont radiated in multiple directions during an informational “town hall” meeting Wednesday at the Fairmont Opera House.

People filled the majority of the Opera House’s main floor, with some expressing strong opposition and others voicing staunch support for the community center.

Steve Hawkins, Brandon Edmundson and Mike Edman, members of the Community Center Action Committee, recapped the project’s history and the work invested over the past two years.

“Our task is to figure out how to bring a community center to Fairmont the right way,” Edmundson said. “It must be a building for all. It must be affordable to build and economical to operate.”

The committee has hired an architect, construction manager and operations consultant to assist in planning the center which, it predicts, will draw people from a 30-mile radius around Fairmont.

With a planned location west of the hospital, the proposed design of the first phase of the building includes a field house the size of four basketball courts, a swimming pool, fitness center and a multi-purpose/banquet room with a seating capacity of 400.

A second phase would include two ice surfaces.

The Fairmont City Council already has OK’d disbursal of an estimated $600,000 annually from the local option sales tax, approved by voters in 2016, to go to the community center. The Action Committee has requested $14 million from city taxpayers, with the remaining $10.7 million raised through private donations.

Negotiations with the YMCA are underway to have that organization manage the center. If an agreement is reached, the “Y” will coordinate with city staff to determine what programs would be offered. However, Edmundson said the YMCA has “expressed some discomfort” at running a community center if alcohol is served, which would likely be the case if the banquet room was used for a wedding celebration.

The biggest issues presented during the question-and-answer session revolved around components of the community center, such as the fitness area and the banquet area, competing with existing local businesses; and how to cover the cost of construction and ongoing operations, estimated to be $530,000 annually.

Several people asked questions and offered opposing and supportive comments about the project, but it was former city councilman Andy Lucas who drew rousing applause after his statement.

Lucas recalled the eight years of planning and fundraising before the Knights of Columbus Hall was built on 10th Street. The all-volunteer staff that operates the hall enables the Knights to donate $70,000 per year to local non-profits. Property taxes on the building run about $1,000 per month.

He questioned why the decision to offer millions of taxpayer dollars would rest on a majority vote of only three city council members instead of offering the citizens a chance to vote on the community center project.

On the other side of the issue, several people advocated taking a chance on the facility, citing it as an opportunity for Fairmont to grow and attract younger residents.

The event, originally scheduled to run 90 minutes, doubled that time in duration. A video of the meeting is scheduled to be aired on local cable channel 13 this weekend, but a time was not yet determined.