By Mary Spicer
It’s crunch time for Meadville Area Recreation Complex.
Emails began to fly through the community Thursday, launching an all-out effort to inspire residents, corporate leaders and officials to come together to help generate ideas about how to make a recreation complex of its size financially viable in a community of this size. The messages are spreading the word that a town hall meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 6 at 6:30 p.m. in the assembly room at Meadville Medical Center’s Grove Street facility. Participants are being asked to “please come prepared to be asked for ideas and input, not donations.”
The February meeting — and an aggressive publicity campaign — is being organized by the MARC Town Hall Committee, headed by Vernon Township resident and Meadville businessman Jay Verno, who also serves as the authority’s vice chairperson.
Following the money
During a Thursday interview with the Tribune, Executive Director Mike Fisher, who has headed the rec complex since May 1991, reminisced about the glory days of 2010.
For the first time, Fisher recalled, user fees combined with income from the authority’s financial partners — Crawford Central School District, the City of Meadville and West Mead and Vernon townships — had finally put the authority on what looked like firm financial ground.
“They were able to put money into a capital reserve fund to do the kind of improvements we’re going to have to do to this 36-year-old facility,” Fisher said. “We just thought we were turning a corner.”
Not much later, he continued, Crawford Central School Board announced that the $262,000 payment made during the district’s 2009-2010 fiscal year for use of the facility was going to be bumped down to $200,000 for the following year. In 2011-2012, the payment bounced back up a bit to $206,000. “At no time did we ever think Crawford Central would pull completely out,” Fisher said.
However, for its 2012-13 fiscal year, which began in June 2012 and ends in July, the school board eliminated swimming classes that had been part of its elementary and secondary curriculum and dropped its payment to the authority to $103,000; at the time, the school board noted that the payment had not been eliminated entirely in an effort to give the complex an opportunity to find a new partner for daytime pool use.
“I understand that Crawford Central has an obligation to educate students — and they have to do what they have to do,” Fisher said. “It’s just unfortunate.”
For 2013, the City of Meadville budgeted $125,000 for the authority, West Mead Township budgeted $57,500 and Vernon Township budgeted $40,000. The authority also expects to generate an additional $566,000 in fees and charges.
However, looking forward to Crawford Central’s coming fiscal year, “The school district wants to pay us nothing,” Fisher said. “They are asking us for an hourly rate for the pool, the baseball and soccer fields and the tennis courts. But if you can’t find people to take the (daytime) pool time, how do you come up with a number for them that might be workable?”
Unable to locate new partners to take over the now-available daytime pool time, the authority is now on the hunt for other income-generating options.
“I would hope that the community can come together to find a way to make it a self-sustaining program,” Crawford Central School Board President Jan VanTuil said Thursday.
“It was a multiple-year process to make the decision to withdraw it from the curriculum — one that we waited as long as we could to make,” she continued. “We continued to look at the entire school day and the classes our students take.
“We are trying to make our school day as curricularly weighted as possible,” VanTuil said. “In other words, all of our moneys need to go to core curriculum. Although the rec complex and the services it provides are very, very valuable, they’re not going to be what makes our students successful students.”
It was, she added, a hard decision. “In no way are we trying to hurt the facility in any way. We want the facility to succeed. ... But $200,000 keeps four teachers in classrooms.”
Meadville Mayor Christopher Soff is also rooting for the complex to succeed.
“Obviously the MARC offers recreational opportunities for the residents of the city,” Soff said Thursday. “Everything I hear from local employers and real estate agents is that it is a huge asset — and a selling point for them in trying to locate people to the City of Meadville. They point to the rec complex specifically — the ability to have a complex like this in a town of our size is rare.”
However, Soff continued, “we have to view it as we have to view everything in our city. It’s not enough to say that we want it to be here. We have to work for that. We have to support it.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.