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West St. Paul’s Quest for a Community Center

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Residents clamoring for a community center can rejoice—the City of West St. Paul is commissioning a feasibility study. It’s a first step to seeing what a community center would cost and if we could find partners to make it more feasible. City Council is open to exploring the question, though it’s not cheap.

Community Center Background

For years now residents of West St. Paul have asked for a community center. Those requests increased considerably after the YMCA, who arguably was filling that role, announced their plans to leave their longtime West St. Paul location. 

Over the years, the City of West St. Paul has met with every possible partner to discuss a potential community center, including the YMCA, ISD 197, the Armory, surrounding communities, and more. So far nothing has come together, but the question remains. 

Feasibility Study

The first step in moving forward with a community center is to conduct a study to determine the needs, market demand, costs, partnerships, etc. City Council is launching that study, in concert with a larger park master plan. The study will be completed by summer 2023.

From there, the city will be able to better determine how feasible a community center is and use the study to secure partnerships and/or funding. 

  • “I think the Council believes it is reasonable to invest a relatively small amount to find out what the community wants and what the community at large might be willing to pay for,” said City Manager Nate Burkett. “So whether you are in favor of a community center or opposed—when we are in our engagement process, please share your thoughts.”

Timeline: It would likely take four to six years to go from idea to opening a community center.

What’s It Cost?

To get an initial idea of what a community center might cost, City Manager Nate Burkett did some preliminary research and put together some very early numbers for City Council. Those numbers are below (sharing them made Burkett a little nervous, so keep in mind these are completely hypothetical and just an educated guess at what actual costs might be).

Construction cost: $20 to $100 million

  • 50,000 to 120,000 square-foot building on a three- to eight-acre site.
  • Annual payments with a 20-year bond at 2.5% interest would amount to $1.3 to $6.4 million (could go 30 years; also interest rates are variable and currently just below 4%).
  • This would roughly translate to a $116 to $562 property tax increase for the average household.
  • During the meeting when Burkett gave these numbers, he called $1.3 million an “extraordinarily low number” and said $3.5 to $5.5 million is more realistic, with an average household tax increase of around $400 annually.

Operating cost: $1.5 to $3 million

  • Covering staff, utilities, supplies, materials, maintenance, and insurance.
  • Potentially offset by membership fees that could bring in an estimated $900,000 (assuming 900 members paying a $1,000 annual membership fee; based on other similar projects) and rental fees bringing in $50,000 to $150,000.
  • If a city needs to cover $1 million in operating costs, that will roughly translate to a $100 property tax increase for the average household.

Total cost of a community center in increased property taxes for the average household: $216 to $662 (plus a roughly $1,000 membership fee to actually use it), assuming West St. Paul goes it alone with no partnerships to share costs.

Potential Partners

There are a number of potential partnerships that could make a community center more affordable. Here’s a summary of some of those partners and where things stand:

  • Dakota County: Has never played a role in a community center before—doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but seems like an unlikely partner.
  • ISD 197: The best opportunity would likely have been their recent 2018 bond improvements, which included a stand-alone aquatic center.
  • Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission: They’re trying to get state money to study the feasibility of a new facility in the southeast metro, so they might be a likely partner.
  • Neighboring communities: There have been talks with surrounding communities about partnering, including Mendota Heights and South St. Paul, and while there is openness, there’s nothing concrete. South St. Paul does have the Central Square Community Center, which is run by the school district and has limited availability. 
  • State bonding: It might be possible to get state bonding money to fund construction of a new facility. 
  • YMCA: Nothing fruitful has come from conversations with the YMCA over the last decade, however the Y is still committed to West St. Paul and open to partnerships. The challenge is evolving needs that may not require a traditional physical space.
  • West St. Paul Armory: Built in 1960 and home to the National Guard, there has been talk of what to do with the aging facility for years with no apparent answers. 

What Does City Council Say?

We’re listening to the community: “We hear you, we hear you, we hear you. We hear over and over and over again that we need more community spaces and that we need a community center and we are doing what we can to try to figure that out. This is just the very beginning of a potential process.” –Robyn Gulley (Sept. 26, 2022 City Council recap video)

This could open up partnerships or funding options: “If we have the numbers and the gap between what we can do and what other people can do, then we can start to partner up and start to have real conversations with legislators, with other cities around us, with the county, potentially with others, but we need that number.” –John Justen (Sept. 26, 2022 City Council recap video)

Partners could make it no cost: “We might have an opportunity like Rosemount did, which is a city just a little bigger than us, that found a partner to help finance all of it and it ended up being no cost to the property tax holders.” –Julie Eastman (Sept. 26, 2022 City Council meeting)

We can’t do it alone: “I will tell you that there’s been enough interest in the community that I think we owe it to them to do a feasibility [study]. … I want to calm the water by saying we hear you, we’re going to be responsible and do an actual assessment, which we’ve never done.  … West St. Paul can’t afford to do this [alone]. We need partners and this might attract partners.” –Dave Napier (Sept. 26, 2022 City Council meeting)

Money matters: “Folks keep giving me examples of other cities with community centers and unfortunately most of those community centers have had to turn over to private entities due to financial constraints. I want to make sure we’re not putting the city and all of the taxpayers into a financial challenge.” –Lisa Eng-Sarne

The contrarian: “It’s pie in the sky. … We’ve been down this road before… you’re throwing your money away.” –Dick Vitelli (Sept. 26, 2022 City Council meeting)

Even without a center we have community: “We talk about this community center that we all want, and that’s walls. And that’s great. But we have so many other places and you just have to go out and find them and it’s not hard—it’s everywhere in West St. Paul. So I’m just filled with a lot of love for our community over the past couple of weeks and I just want to remind people to look for it because it’s out there.” –Wendy Berry (July 11, 2022 City Council meeting)

What’s Next?

The feasibility study is the next step. Not much will happen until the city gets the results of that study in 2023.

No decision yet: None of this means West St. Paul will get a community center. It means the city is doing the due diligence to see if it’s even possible. Once there’s a more realistic picture of needs and costs, then it will be time to make a decision.

Oct. 25, 2022 Update: Advocates Speak Up

Advocates for a community center packed City Council with an estimated 75 in attendance and 25 speaking during citizen comments in support of a community center.

  • See our recap of the City Council meeting.
  • The Pioneer Press reported on the group’s plans to attend the Council meeting, but it could use a few fact checks:
    • The Pioneer Press quotes resident Kelly Kratzke arguing for a community center at the former YMCA/Hy-Vee land: “The reason that we want this same spot is because there isn’t any other land available in West St. Paul,” Kratzke said. “We are locked in. I don’t know where else it would go if it didn’t go there.”
      • Fact check: The city’s ongoing conversations with partners have mentioned other possible locations, including next to the Dakota County Northern Service Center.
    • The Pioneer Press quotes Kratzke saying, “We don’t have a community center, we don’t have a movie theater, we don’t have one sheet of ice here for all the communities.”
      • Fact check: South St. Paul has the Central Square Community Center and West St. Paul has the Thompson Park Activity Center which focuses on older adults. Both communities have their own indoor ice arenas and multiple outdoor rinks.
  • The Star Tribune also reported on the Council meeting and where things stand.

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One comment

  1. I want to add another close community that has a community center, that WSP residents could choose to join. That’s in Inver Grove Heights. I don’t know anything about their ownership or financial arrangements. I do know it’s big with lots of resources: three water areas, very large exercise equipment area (two in fact), nice locker areas, trainers; plus meeting rooms and other resources. They do share the pools with the Simley High swim teams, but there is a lot of open/recreational swim times and classes for the public. Membership rates are reasonable; and seniors with Silver Sneakers can belong for no cost. Check it out! I joined recently and am very happy with it!

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