The path to the city-school district partnership on a recreation and wellness center in Litchfield has been filled with bumps and potholes during the past several months.
And, at times, the destination has seemed uncharted.
But after a 90-minute City Council work session, shared with School Board members and Superintendent Beckie Simenson, Monday night, the entities remain united in their goal. Even if that goal is not yet crystal clear.
“I think we as elected officials really need to come out of the chute united,” Councilor Darlene Kotelnicki said. “It’s a vote of trust. They (residents) have to trust us that we’re going to work together.”
“I see this as our best shot for a long time,” school board member Greg Mathews said. “We need a united approach.”
By session’s end, the combined group reached consensus that a joint project would include a wellness center with multipurpose gym and meeting rooms, in addition to an aquatic center with an eight-lane lap pool. City Administrator Dave Cziok at one point referred to the vision as “the Wadena model” with an eight-lane pool — reference to the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center in the northern Minnesota town of about 4,100.
The center would be a melding of city and school district wants and needs, answering a community desire for a recreation or wellness center, in addition to the school district’s need for a new swimming pool. Making it work financially will require a combination of funding sources, including an $11 million school district bond to finance the pool, a local option sales tax and a grant from the state, through the legislature’s bonding committee.
There was an acceptance Monday that without any of those pieces, the project likely would not succeed.
“There is no scenario in which the city is going at this alone,” Cziok said. And yet, amid that seeming pessimism, optimism: “The thing that keeps hitting me in the head is,” Cziok said, “if the school district is successful, there’s $11 million of capital there. And (if) we get $5 million from the state, and the sales tax is supported … we’re playing with $21 million. I think just about anything is possible at that stage.”
City and school officials have met jointly a few times during the past several months, seeming to find common ground for a building project that would serve both their constituencies, only to have that unity fracture outside of those joint meetings.
Most recently, Mathews and others expressed frustration during a late July School Board meeting that the city seemed unwilling to commit to a plan.
Mathews voiced that anxiousness again Monday.
“We really have to have some idea of what you guys want to do with us,” Mathews said, urging that the group develop a “definitive statement” about what the wellness center might look like. “Your responsibility is to serve your constituency. Our responsibility is to serve ours. Hopefully, we can meet somewhere on those. We are at crunch time.”
The urgency for the school district comes as the School Board moves to finalize three questions for a planned November referendum. The final verbiage isn’t set, but Simenson told the City Council Monday that the three questions will ask for:
- $625 per pupil operating levy,
- $33 million bond for facility improvements and security upgrades,
- $11.4 million bond for an eight-lane swimming pool, expanded weight room and soccer field.
That last question, on the swimming pool, is the most in jeopardy, Mathews said, based on an unscientific sampling of questions and comments from visitors to the school district’s booth at the Meeker County Fair this past weekend. While most were generally supportive of the district’s improvement goals, he said, how the pool fit into any collaborative or solo plan drew the most scrutiny.
“Proposition three (the pool question) had the least likelihood of passing,” Mathews said. “If we are going to go out and sell this, we have to have a definitive statement about, 'If we do this, this is what’s going to happen.'”
School and city officials must explain, Mathews added, “Here’s the vision we have for the next 50 or 75 years, that we’re going to have this complex and (that will) make us first class.”
Because there still are so many, “if this, then this” scenarios, Cziok said, the city can’t guarantee that a facility will be built. It will only happen if everything falls into place. The location of a facility, how it will operate, what exactly will be included still have to be answered.
But by the end of Monday’s meeting, that seemed good enough for the group.
“We have had some of the most creative conversations about what we can do,” Simenson said of her discussions with Cziok. “There are a lot of people watching what we’re doing. I would encourage us to keep thinking big picture, not get bogged down with … the little stuff.”