The proposed Ely Regional Community Complex would be a tremendous recreational asset to the Ely area, but it’s one that clearly makes some people nervous. Members of the Ely School Board, for example, have expressed concerns about the project and how it will be funded in the long-term. They know they don’t want to be left holding the bag if the ambitions of ERCC board of directors outpace the funding abilities of the community. School officials are equally unsure whether the group’s request to build the facility on the west end of the high school campus might limit the school district’s options in the future. These are legitimate concerns, which is why the ERCC board should be actively exploring alternative locations and less ambitious concepts.
We are concerned that the ERCC could be overly ambitious in its current form. A $12 million, 50,000 square-foot building, as has been discussed, is an enormous project, one that’s on a scale more typical of much larger and wealthier communities. Forest Lake, for example, recently built a 53,000 square-foot facility, for $13 million. But that’s a community of 20,000 residents and with tens of thousands more residents within easy driving distance of the center. And, in the end, Forest Lake opted to partner with the YMCA to operate the facility. The YMCA also contributed $4 million towards the cost of construction.
A similar partnership between the Duluth YMCA, Essentia, and the city of Hermantown is behind plans for a 72,000 square-foot wellness center in that community.
ERCC board members may be exploring similar partnerships but, if so, it hasn’t come out in public discussions of the project thus far. If such partnerships have not been explored, they should be, because such an approach is likely the only way such a project could be viable.
A $5 million private donation toward the project certainly brightens the prospects for building Ely’s facility. But the operating costs are the real issue. A similar, albeit larger, facility in Shoreview, for example, costs $2.5 million a year to run. We haven’t seen operating expense estimates for the proposed Ely facility, but it’s not going to be cheap. Shoreview manages to cover most of its costs through fees charged to about 2,300 member families, concessions, and rentals, but that’s in a much larger suburban community. And the city still subsidizes the operational costs to the tune of $250,000 a year.
ERCC’s own survey results found that most families in Ely indicated they would be unwilling to pay more than $250 a year for a membership to the facility. Even assuming 800 memberships (which would be optimistic), that would generate just $200,000 a year, far less than the likely cost of operating a facility of the scale envisioned by ERCC supporters.
Until the ERCC puts some realistic operational estimates forward, people in the community are going to remain reluctant about their proposal.
One of the toughest jobs for any group like the ERCC board is reining in the enthusiasm. But that might be the best thing at this point. The group should seriously consider unveiling a pared-down version of their proposal and prepare and release an analysis of the operational costs. Until that happens, it’s going to be difficult to get traction. It is a legitimate worry that the scale of the project is simply too big for a community the size of Ely to support.
It’s fine to think big, but groups like the ERCC board also need to remain realistic if they’re going to achieve success.