Center of planning: Grand Junction options mulled as work proceeds on Fruita facility

Four years ago, Sally Schaefer had visions of staging her retirement party at a new community recreation center along the Colorado River in Grand Junction.

The party went ahead as scheduled this year, but was held at Schaefer’s offices at Hilltop Community Resources, where she served as chief executive officer.

In the interim, plans for a recreation center stalled in the midst of an economic downturn and community priorities that include new police and fire stations, school building maintenance and efforts to renovate Suplizio Field and the Avalon Theater.

Construction proceeds on a new community center and library in Fruita. The project, funded by a 1 percent increase in sales tax, is scheduled for completion in January. Plans to construct a community center in Grand Junction have stalled.

Meanwhile, though, the City of Fruita expects to open a new community center and branch library early next year. And another group in Grand Junction is considering a former athletic club as a backup site for a public facility.

Fruita voters approved a 1 percent sales tax increase in the spring of 2009 after voting on the first ballot measure in November 2008 ended in a tie.

When the recession cut into sales tax collections last year, the city delayed groundbreaking for the center. But crews are now well under way in constructing the building on North Cherry Street across from the new Family Health West hospital.

“It’ll be done in January 2011 — on time and on budget,” says Fruita City Manager Clint Kinney.

Kinney says the community center will cost about $11.1 million, with the Fruita branch of the Mesa County Public Library will add another $1.1 million to the cost of the project.

In Grand Junction, there’s another possibility besides the center proposed by Schaefer’s group. The Salvation Army is considering the possibility of buying the former Grand Junction Athletic Club in Foresight Park near the intersection of 25 and Patterson roads. “That’s something we think we might accomplish within five years,” says Dan Wilson, Salvation Army captain.

Wilson says the Salvation Army would probably pursue the building only if other efforts to build a new facility continue to go nowhere. He estimates the purchase and renovation of the athletic club would cost about $3.3 million.

Schaefer’s community center project stalled as the November 2008 election approached and the effects of the recession took hold. As recently as March of last year, however, Schaefer said a tax proposal was possible for the November 2010 ballot. That possibility has vanished.

Although large construction projects continue to move forward at Mesa State College and on a 29 Road bypass over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, there’s no public funding available for a project the size of a community center.

Schaefer says Grand Valley Recreation Resources would have to raise about 30 percent of the estimated $27 million to build a center. Local city and county governments have curtailed budgets and staffing and constitute unlikely sources for funding in the near future. Banks are not as willing to lend money for construction as much as they were two years ago. And then there’s the matter of trying to find that 30 percent, or about $8.1 million, during an economic downturn.

Four years ago, Schaefer said she was sensitive to the needs of other organizations and to the fact two major capital campaigns were underway — one to construct a 12-story patient tower and renovate St. Mary’s Hospital the other to fund buildings for Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado.

Those campaigns are finished, but the City of Grand Junction still searches for ways to fund new public safety buildings. City administrators and city council members say it’s their top priority.

The city focus on public safety effects the recreation center project partly because either effort could entail a tax issue on the ballot and partly because Schaefer hopes the city can help pay for the operating costs for a rec center.

“I’m very content to stand in line (behind a public safety ballot issue),” Schaefer said during an interview in early 2009. “And they (the city) are our primary partner).”

Schaefer met with city officials to pursue the potential to use land in the proposed Las Colonias Park on the north side of the Colorado River between Seventh and 12th streets. The city was willing to listen—at least prior to the economic downturn. It was also willing to consider using city staff to operate the center.

Requests for increased sales taxes to fund a community center have failed in the past in Grand Junction elections.

Owners of privately owned athletic clubs complained the city planned to use tax dollars to compete with the private sector and said health clubs already provide many of the services a public center would offer.

Schaefer insists a public center wouldn’t directly compete with facilities operated by Crossroads Fitness, Gold’s Gym and others. She suggests a center would include a warm-water leisure pool, meeting rooms for teen-agers and seniors and possible access to the river for outside water sports. Schaefer envisions offering free passes to people who can’t afford the daily or monthly fee at a public center. She also suggests a public center could entice people to start exercise programs and that some of them might eventually enroll in private clubs to avoid crowds or enjoy specific programs offered at private clubs.

“They generally have a different public and programs. That’s my experience in other communities,” says Grand Junction Mayor Teresa Coons, who says she remains in favor of a public center but hasn’t been approached about such a facility in a long time.

A sales tax increase would affect Grand Junction businesses that would pay more to purchase goods in city limits. While the city doesn’t estimate how much of the tax burden would be borne by businesses, the city Web site estimates that two-thirds of sales taxes are paid by a combination of businesses and those who live outside the city limits. Businesses often try to pass on increased taxes to customers —and at least one third of them are city residents. Businesses also face the prospect of selling less products when the city adds to the sales tax on purchases.

While a proposed community center could have to wait until better economic times, the Glacier Ice Arena in Grand Junction remains in limbo, closed at least temporarily due to lack of funding to replace ice-making equipment. Moreover, community leaders have discussed the potential for a large events center for at least eight years. A Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce committee formed in 2002 recommended examination of a 5,000- to 8,000-seat center that could host concerts, motocross and even an arena football team or minor league hockey team. The ice arena and events center also could compete with a community center to secure private or public funding.

In the meantime, the Salvation Army plans to continue to investigate the potential for a small community center in Foresight Park and might also look for ways to help the ice rink. “I thought about talking to the skating rink,” Wilson says.

At this point, it’s likely any organization searching for funding will consider almost any option.