The location of a proposed community recreation center in Little Falls was discussed further with Little Falls City Council on Monday.
The first concepts are for a 95,000 square foot facility. It could include an indoor track, up to four full-size basketball courts – which could also be used for volleyball, tennis, soccer, pickleball, etc. – an elevated walking track and four meeting spaces.
The project would be funded by a local half-cent option sales tax in Little Falls. Residents will have the opportunity to vote in the November 2022 general election on whether or not they agree to the levy being imposed for the purpose of paying for the community recreation center.
“With all the talk about the proposed location and a lot of feedback we’ve received, I think it’s important that we kind of have this opportunity to rehash the exercise we did when we were exploring locations in 2019. “said city administrator Jon Radermacher. “It’s been a long time since we had that at the table.”
John McNamara of Wold Architects and Engineers provided Council with an overview of the criteria that were considered when exploring locations. He also discussed the four sites that were the subject of these conversations and how each fit into the established criteria.
The site Radermacher described as “ideal” is part of what is called “School Woods” – a 14-acre patch just east of Little Falls Community High School. The project would use about half of this space, with the other seven acres remaining for its current use as an outdoor learning area.
This location has received a considerable amount of rejection from residents who do not believe that any of the woods should be cleared to make way for the community recreation center. At this location, the school would partner with the city. It would be a city-owned community recreation center, but the district would be a major user of the facility.
“Some of the criteria we had talked about really revolved around trying to come up with more objective thoughts related to what might be a good location for the community center,” McNamara said. “When you’re really talking about venues, it really has a lot to do with the criteria we have here.”
Criteria included cost, site size, accessibility from major roads, ease of access to other amenities and natural features of the town, access to utilities, safety and security, space expansion and more.
The four sites explored were the school woods, city-owned land south of River Rock Townhomes – part of which is currently planned for a new apartment complex – private land south of Walmart and a parcel owned in town near Haven Road near the Belle Prairie soccer complex. Each had pros and cons with respect to the criteria laid out by city and Wold employees.
As for the school’s woods, McNamara said the location’s proximity to the school — as a partner — was a positive. It is also easily accessible from highways 10, 371 and 27.
The community center would likely be built on the “west” side of the site, according to McNamara.
“(We try) to preserve as much of the existing site as possible for some of these outdoor activities,” he said.
Site two is the largest of the proposed sites at 58 acres. Even with the apartment complex, there would still be ample space for the community center, with room to expand.
The third location is the smallest at approximately eight acres and is located amongst other developed parcels. It is located between 16th Street Northeast and 18th Street Northeast. However, the land is privately owned, which would likely mean that the cost would be increased by purchasing the property.
“From an access standpoint, it’s definitely a viable site,” McNamara said. “A building would fit in this area, but it would require improvements. Of the sites, this is probably the smallest of the sites when it comes to the idea of a potential expansion of this facility. »
The latest site is a 33-acre city-owned parcel off Haven Road, just south of Prairie Drive. McNamara said the goal was to place the facility on the south side of the property, although there are several ways to approach the development.
As they worked through possible locations, McNamara said they tried to create criteria that could be ranked objectively in order to find what would work best for the community.
“A good exercise would be, as a group, to go through and review each of these sites and, as a group or individually, sort of rank how you think the site does or does not meet the criteria we have set out for it” , he told the Council, “That would give you some kind of idea as to your ranking for which of these sites would best meet the needs of the city, in the long term.”
He said those involved in the planning process did the same exercise, which is how they determined which woods for the school would best meet all the criteria.
Following the presentation, council member James Storlie asked about the possibility of the community recreation center moving to a parcel in the Northeast 18th Street Industrial Park, north of Walmart. He said he believed the property “ticked a lot of the boxes” set out in the criteria.
Radermacher said there are city-owned plots, but it’s a “really good area” for future development of the industrial park.
“We’ve had conversations and indications that while things are going really well for Barrett (Pet Food Innovations), other vendors or side business people are actually intrigued by the relocation or expansion of services. in sites around here,” he said.
“The first thing we need to look at is, what is the community going to vote on?” Storlie said. “That’s what we have to look at.”
Additionally, he thought traffic would be “a total mess” if the facility was built on the site of the school’s timber.
Council Chairman Brad Hircock said a red light at the north end of the road would help traffic easily enter and exit the area.
Mayor Greg Zylka added that an important point on his mind was access for schools. He said it was because they were going to be “50/50 users” of it. It would be difficult to transport people to other locations, he said.
“For me, easy access to all gyms in the same area would also be important,” Zylka said. “And, thank God, if it’s so crowded we might have a traffic problem. To me, that’s what we need in this community. We must continue to grow. »
Radermacher reiterated that the School Forest site seemed like an ideal one from the time it became an option in January 2020, though it didn’t come without challenges. The latter was the case with all properties explored, however.
Ultimately, he said he wanted to begin public meetings soon to discuss not only the location, but also the items proposed to be included in the community center. He ultimately has to be put into a single package to go to the November ballot.
He said nothing was “firmly set in stone,” but they were getting closer to the information they needed to get out to the public so residents could vote with full knowledge of the facts.
“Last time we did this in 2018 it didn’t end up being successful, but it was very close,” Radermacher said. “One of the most common comments I heard from people who downvoted was that they didn’t know what it was going to be or where it was going to be. I think we want to try to get as close to that answer as possible. »
Prior to McNamara’s presentation and the ensuing discussion, two Little Falls residents made public comments in support of the School Woods location.
Doug Dahlberg said he doesn’t believe anyone has spoken to current users of the school woods.
“I’ve seen a lot of information about people who don’t actually live in the city, who seem to have strong opinions about it,” he said.
He read a pair of letters he said he received from high school science teachers Bill Mushel and Reid Bellig.
Reading the letter he said was from Mushel, Dahlberg said the community recreation center there “seemed obvious” because of the number of students who would benefit from its construction on that site. He also said the 3.8 acres the city would provide to supplement the existing woods would be “perfect ground.”
“If the school is to be the primary tenant of the facility, it must be within walking distance,” Dahlberg said, reading Mushel’s letter. “EPS classes, sports teams, have to get there and come back within a reasonable time. Busing kids somewhere doesn’t make sense economically or given class time constraints.
Additionally, Mushel wrote that all of the arguments against the site were “emotional in nature.” He understood the attachment to this land, but believed in leaving the emotions “at the door” when it came to taxpayers’ money.
“This area is being used differently than it was when Doug Ploof was a teacher here,” Dahlberg said, still reading Mushel’s letter. “Shouldn’t those currently using the area be able to make decisions about its use, just like Doug did when he was a teacher here?”
Reading the letter he said he received from Bellig, Dahlberg said the school forest site would “serve the greatest good” of students and the community.
“The number of students who would benefit from the construction of the recreation center would far exceed the number of students using the school forest,” he said. “We still have two ponds, a native meadow, half of the original site where the recreation center would be built and the new 3.8 acres of land south of the secondary school. As a high school life science teacher, I’m all for using this site.
Kris VonBerge also advocated for this site, on behalf of Visit Little Falls. She said it would be “a great asset” to the community to be able to host conferences and conventions at the facility.
“If you have a convention and they have an offer for the convention, they want to know what type of facility you have and where the unit is close to that facility,” VonBerge said.
Closing the evening’s discussion on the subject, Zylka said he would support whatever the majority of the Council chooses, as far as a site is concerned. The most important thing, he said, was getting the facility built.
“I think we need full support to make this thing go through,” Zylka said. “If we’re going to have, ‘If I don’t get what I want and it won’t be on the one I want.’ I think it has the ability to do damage. If the one I want isn’t the best place and the board votes that way, I’ll support it 100%.”