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A tale of two centers

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett stands outside the 27,400-square-foot Orion center on Josyln Rd. The community center has been operating at a loss since it opened in 2012. Township officials are working to bring in new revenue streams and Barnett has a goal to make the center self-supporting in five years. "I'm not saying I'm down on community centers, I'm just saying that you really need to have the financials all figured out before you put a shovel in the ground. I don't think we did," Barnett said. "I think what we're doing now is we're developing the (business) plan after the fact." Photo by C.J Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
January 29, 2014 - If Oxford Township ultimately decides to build a community center, will it lead to the best of times or the worst of times for the municipality?

Based on the night-and-day experiences of Oxford's neighbors to the north and south, the answer depends on a variety of factors including planning, funding, amenities and the level of public use.

Now in its 19th year of operation, the City of Lapeer's community center appears to be a success story. It's heavily used by both residents and non-residents, and primarily funded by user and rental fees.

"The center has been a wonderful thing for our community," said Ray Turczyn, Lapeer's director of parks, recreation and cemetery. "I'd like to say that it's a necessity for any good, thriving community to have."

Less than two years old, Orion Township's community center is still a work in progress. It's struggling to fund itself and officials are still trying to determine the best ways it can be of use to residents.

"The jury's still out," said township Supervisor Chris Barnett. "It has not gotten off to the start that anybody had anticipated."

Orion's center has been operating at a loss since it opened.

"I don't want to sell the place or close it, but we've got to find revenue streams that will support the building," Barnett said.

As the Oxford Township Parks and Recreation Department continues to explore the feasibility of potentially asking taxpayers to fund construction of a community/senior center, the Leader decided to take a look at Lapeer and Orion's centers in order to offer some outside perspectives.

"Any community that is interested in providing a good quality-of-life type of environment should definitely look into having services like this," Turczyn said.

"I'm not saying I'm down on community centers, I'm just saying that you really need to have the financials all figured out before you put a shovel in the ground. I don't think we did." Barnett said. "I think what we're doing now is we're developing the (business) plan after the fact."

"Our board has come to the conclusion that it's a benefit to have this building open to the community, in spite of the fact that it operates at a loss," the supervisor continued. "But it's our job to be wise about it. We can't just mindlessly continue to lose money."

City of Lapeer Community Center

Open since 1995, construction of Lapeer's 55,000-square-foot center was funded through the city's Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Authority and serves a population of approximately 35,000 between the city and its surrounding townships.

"The center itself is a great community asset," said Turczyn, who's overseen its operations since it opened.

It cost $6 million to build, plus another $1 million for architectural services, financing, furnishing and equipment.

In today's dollars, this $7 million project would cost about $10.7 million.

The center's main feature is a combination competition/leisure swimming pool. One side has six lanes and a diving board to meet high school competitive standards, while the other side features zero-entry access along with water slides, geysers and toys.

"It's the only (public) pool in the county," Turczyn said.

The center has a full gymnasium, a three-lane track, two racquetball courts and a weight/fitness area. "This is a great place for people to come and do things to improve their health," said Turczyn, who noted the center promotes itself as a place for "fun and fitness."

It also contains multipurpose rooms for classes, meetings and party rentals, plus a child care area and the parks/rec. main office.

"We have services available to the community through our parks and rec. programs seven days a week," Turczyn said. "We're open about 100 hours a week (not including extra time for rentals and special events)."

Turczyn said it costs approximately $1 million annually to operate the center.

"User fees pay for most of it," he explained.

Annual passes, which allow individuals, families, youth and senior citizens to access the center year-round, account for approximately $550,000 per year.

Single visits – people paying at the door to come in and use the facility for the day – amount to approximately $200,000 annually.

The center also receives approximately $150,000 per year in fees for classes and programs, plus $40,000 to $50,000 in rental fees.

But despite all this outside revenue, the center is not completely self-sufficient.

"There were a few years where we actually took in more money than it costs us to operate, but I think that was like three out of the 18 years we've been open," Turczyn said.

Most years, the center is partially subsidized by the city's general fund and the TIF Authority to the tune of $50,000 to $150,000 annually, according to Turczyn.

"I think the last two years (the center received) just over $100,000 each (in government funding)," he noted.

Turczyn is a firm believer in community centers. "I think good communities have to have a strong recreation and cultural component to be thriving communities," he said. "These are the kinds of things that make good communities.

"You have to have essential (things) such as police, housing and jobs. But to have a really good, quality community, I think that recreation and culture play a big role in that," Turczyn added.

Orion Center

Open since spring 2012, construction of Orion's two-level, 27,400-square-foot center was funded through a combination of payments it received from the Eagle Valley Landfill and the township's general fund.

"We didn't have any special millages or anything," said Barnett, who took office in November 2012.

The center cost $3.82 million to build.

"When I campaigned (for supervisor), I was really skeptical about the whole process and not very happy with the way the township did it," Barnett said. (The cost) was kind of a moving target. We never really had a firm budget. The board just kept approving changes as they came through."

The upper level contains a large dining room/multipurpose meeting space that can be divided into three smaller rooms.

"That's where a lot of the larger activities occur," Barnett said.

Offices for Orion's Community Programs department, which encompasses senior services and parks and recreation, and a commercial kitchen are also located on the upper level.

Rooms for arts and crafts, exercise, games, dance and yoga are located on the lower level.

"The lower level is mostly occupied by our seniors," Barnett said. "The majority of the activities, probably 90 percent of the activities, that happen on the lower level are senior activities."

The supervisor noted the township attempted to charge seniors a membership fee and "we lost everyone," so the fee was scrapped and the seniors came back.

Although the lower level is predominantly occupied by seniors, the supervisor said it's not designated for their exclusive use.

"We've been careful not to call it a senior center because we have third-party groups that come in and teach dance classes for kids down there," Barnett said. "That's a small percentage of what we do, but it is open to anybody in our community for rental."

"I'm trying to get more family-friendly, youth stuff going on down there because it's a community center," he noted.

Orion's established a youth council to engage youngsters and garner ideas.

The lower level also contains a vacant wellness clinic with an exam room. "We're in the process of finding a (healthcare provider) to fill that," Barnett said. "At our next board meeting, we'll be basically picking a partner, if you will, for the clinic."

The clinic could be used for things such as blood pressure checks, flu shots, physical therapy and health classes.

Barnett said the township's main goal with the center is to get its finances out of the red.

"My big message is we have to generate revenue because we can't keep losing (money)," he said.

Based on the figures Barnett provided, it cost $468,472 to operate the center in 2013.

But the center generated $154,300 in revenue last year, meaning the township general fund had to provide a $314,172 subsidy.

"I don't ever see this building making us money," Barnett noted. "To me, in a perfect scenario, we would break even. I could tell you, 'Yes, we want to make money,' but to be honest with you, looking at how much it costs us and with the staffing levels, it's not realistic for anybody to say that this would be a money-maker."

To help generate additional revenue, Orion signed a preferred cater agreement with the Macomb-based Crank's Catering.

Under the five-year agreement, Crank's Catering gets "first scheduling preference" for the center's large dining room and in return, the township receives a share of the revenue from any events booked there.

Orion's share starts at 11 percent in the first year, increases by 1 percent annually and tops out at 15 percent.

Also, any events booked at the community center that include serving food and more than 25 guests must be catered by Crank's.

Barnett isn't a fan of government competing against local businesses such as restaurants and Canterbury Village, but in this case, it's out of necessity to keep the community center open without continuing to dip into the township's general fund.

"I personally don't like that," he said. "I don't think that's a position we should really be in, but it's the position that we're in."

The center also derives some revenue from Orion Neighborhood Television (ONTV).

The local public access station is housed there in a 4,400-square-foot space. For this space, ONTV made a one-time contribution of $150,000 to the township and pays 16 percent of the utility costs.

Barnett is trying to be optimistic and find programs that will bring youth and adults to the center and generate revenue.

"I think there's great opportunity to get more people engaged (and) for it to be a really great thing," he said. "Just having senior programs is not going to support the building."

As Oxford looks at the possibility of constructing a community center, Barnett's advice was "tread lightly."

"Really do your research and move forward carefully," he said. "Get the business case figured out (first)."

"I think often people in positions like mine just think, 'Oh, this is a great thing,'" so "they put shovels in the ground and start building stuff" with the idea that they'll figure out all the details later, Barnett noted.

In Barnett's opinion, Orion officials had "blind faith" that "if you build it, they will come."

That's not been the case.

"Now, we're kind of scrambling, trying to fill the gaps," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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