Saline City Council Reacts to $7 Million Rec Center Recommendation


Authors of a $60,000 study of the Saline Rec Center's needs and feasibility recommend spending $6.8 to $7.3 million on improving the 32-year-old facility. A chief recommendation is to improve and expand the pool area to replace the small pool with a larger leisure pool.

The needs assessment and feasibility study was conducted by BerryDunn at the behest of the Saline Rec Center Sustainability Task Force and city council.

Just weeks after the council decided to outsource its police dispatch center to rein in the city budget, Mayor Brian Marl asked the task force members to steer the talk away from some of the “aspirational” big ticket items in the report and instead directed discussion toward options to generate revenue and save money at the Rec Center, or low-hanging fruit options to “improve the vitality” of the Rec Center.

Even before COVID lockdowns, the Rec Center was sometimes a sore spot for some city councillors who weren’t thrilled with subsidizing operations and paying expensive capital costs. After struggling in the early 2010s, the Rec Center seemed to have turned a corner until COVID lockdowns decimated Rec Center business. The city spent a majority of its federal COVID funds on backfilling the losses at the Rec Center. Knowing the COVID aid was running out, the city struck a task force to study ways to get the Rec Center back to full strength.

Ed O’Toole, of BerryDunn, provided council with the report, which included the pre-and-post COVID numbers.

Rec center membership was declining slightly before the pandemic lockdowns closed the center and wreaked havoc on revenues. Memberships are rising again, but still far below what they were.

Membership revenue has also rebounded but is still far below pre-COVID levels. However, revenue from leagues, classes and programs is nearly as high or even higher than they were pre-COVID.

O’Toole commended the Rec Center for holding down expenses considering the inflation seen throughout the economy.

Numbers presented by O’Toole showed the Rec Center had slightly more revenue than expenses in 2017-18 and 2018-19. But from 2019-20 to 2021-22, the Rec Center lost nearly $1.3 million. In 2022-23, the Rec Center lost $211,850.

A series of focus group and stakeholder interviews saw recurring themes about improving the pool area, whether it was adding leisure pool amenities for kids, renovating the pool deck, or updating the locker rooms. A survey showed that nearly 40 percent of members rated unlimited access to the pool as the most valuable part of being a member, O’Toole said.

Improving the lobby also ranked high among needs.

O’Toole went on to outline recommended improvements to the pool area, including a 1,200-square-foot improvement, a six-lane lap pool, a zero-depth entry pool and a “lazy river.”

The estimated $7 million investment would net 700 memberships, O’Toole said.

When O’Toole’s presentation was completed, Marl asked Parks and Rec Director Carla Scruggs and Deputy Director Sunshine Lambert about ideas for cost savings and generating revenue. Scruggs, who has been director since the Rec Center opened, is retiring this month and Lambert is assuming the role of director. The deputy director’s position is being eliminated.

Lambert said the Rec Center is working on partnerships with personal trainers and soccer organizations. The Rec Center is working with a contractor to grow swim lesson programming.

Lambert said the critical focus is membership growth.

“The staff has been meeting to discuss ways to grow membership. We need to focus on bringing up memberships,” Lambert said.

The Rec Center might not need to look too far to find them. 80 percent of the people who attend Rec Center events are not members.

“That’s a great opportunity to market straight to those individuals,” Lambert said.

Council’s Reaction

Marl called it one of the most comprehensive reports he has received since serving on council.

Councillor Nicole Rice questioned Scruggs and Lambert whether they’ve studied the financial strategies listed in the report’s appendix.

Scruggs suggested a task force might look into some of those options, like naming rights, corporate sponsorships, bonds, and grants.

“We would do whatever it takes to get that money,” Scruggs said.

Rice said she was interested in more concrete details when it comes to funding.

“My gut reaction is, more money from the taxpayer for the Rec Center? So my gut reaction is, let’s look at this from where else can money come from before we even remotely discuss this as something we want to pursue,” Rice said. “I agree with all of the outcomes but how do we do it?”

Mayor Marl pointed to a $5 million grant for the wastewater treatment plant project and then noted that the state provides many multi-million-dollar grants for parks and recreation.

Councillor Jim Dell’Orco said he remembered healthcare task force discussions about partnering with a health organization to offer rehab services at the Rec Center. City Manager Colleen O’Toole said there has been no interest to date - but that perhaps improved facilities might increase demand for such a partnership.

Councillor Dean Girbach asked if there was any consideration of rightsizing operations to save money.

“I didn’t see that in here. We’re basically looking at additions and expansions - a build it, they will come kind of approach,” Girbach said. “I didn’t see any approach that considered what would we do if we couldn’t (spend on renovations).”

O’Toole said the Rec Center doesn’t want to reduce programming.

“There’s a lot of walk-in downtime, particularly in the gym,” O’Toole said. “These buildings are built with a life expectancy - and you’re there. So, eventually, doing nothing will give you a building that’s unsafe and you’re going to have zero memberships because you can’t allow people to go in, you’ll have to condemn it.”

Girbach questioned a recommendation to raise membership fees 25 to 50 percent on non-city residents. Girbach questioned whether that would cut into projected membership gains. But Girbach also said he was concerned because the city was subsidizing memberships for residents who live in nearby townships.

“I don’t know how that’s going to be solved,” Girbach said.

Councillor Janet Dillon questioned whether the pool area had the room to house all the infrastructure and all the people who’d buy memberships to use the new pool.

O’Toole said everything that has been proposed has been scaled to capacity. He noted that 30 percent of the people who buy memberships never enter a building. He said pool capacities can be managed.

And if it gets too busy, that’s a good problem to have, O’Toole said.

Councillor Jack Ceo said he was expecting a report that would talk about ways to save money and raise revenue, so he was surprised to see recommendations to spend millions of dollars.

“My breath was kind of taken away. Can we afford at this time, when we’re spending funds on the wastewater treatment plant, the roads and other infrastructure, can we also then spend that much more money to support the Rec Center?” Ceo asked.

Ceo said staffing has been a challenge and asked how the city would staff an improved facility.

Lambert said finding lifeguards has been a challenge throughout the country. Lambert said the Rec Center raised pay rates, but still has a hard time maintaining staffing, particularly among youth.

Mayor Marl closed the discussion by saying it was the start of a longer conversation. He encouraged residents who attend Rec programs to consider purchasing a membership.

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