The Great Falls City Commission approved the Aim High Aquatics and Recreation Center Conditional Use Permit (CUP) at its meeting on May 18. Although cooperation between the Malmstrom Air Force Base and the city is promising and a replacement aquatics facility for the defunct Natatorium is long-awaited, I have a lot of concerns and questions about this project that are yet unanswered.
I expressed some of those concerns and questions during the Aim High CUP public comment at the commission meeting. Mayor Kelly, to his credit, asked both City Planning Officer Craig Raymond and L’Heureux Page Werner Architecture president Tim Peterson whether they cared to respond.
Both refused to address any of my questions or concerns. So much for transparency in city government projects.
Prior to the city commission meeting, I had posed the following questions to City Manager Greg Doyon by email. The answers I received about the Aim High facility, in my opinion, didn’t alleviate my concerns. Here’s the content of that email:
City Manager Doyon,
I have some questions about the proposed water recreation facility slated to be built in Lions Park and am hoping you can give me some answers.
1. As you know, soils in the Great Falls area can be an issue for building and even more troublesome for a building the size and weight of a water recreation facility. Have the soils been tested and approved on the new proposed site for this facility?
City Response: Yes. TD&H conducted a geotechnical inspection of the site. This location had much better soils than the previous three locations considered.
2. Has the city taken into account and budgeted for increases in building materials for this project? In March 2020, a 4×8 foot sheet of 15/32” OSB cost me $12.50; current price the same sheet of OSB is $48/sheet. That’s nearly four times the cost from just over a year ago! I am concerned that the city is relying on construction costs from 2020 or earlier and will incur additional expenses not anticipated.
City Response: We are concerned too. We will only know when the bids are let in the fall. There is a contingency available, but that is usually not intended to be used to offset increased material costs.
3. Will more city employees will be hired to run this facility or is the city planning to allow a private contractor to run the facility? I am concerned about the cost of additional city employees versus having a private contractor.
City Response: Yes. There will be additional employees needed to operate the facility. Keep in mind that the facility is combined Recreation and indoor pool facility and the revenue model will be different to better support additional staff.
4. I doubt the new water recreation facility will be self-sustaining and therefore, it seems it will require additional money from the city to operate. Which means more tax dollars and therefore more families negatively impacted by these seemingly never-ending property tax increases. Is the city considering or planning to implement another tax levy in order to run this facility?
City Response: No. Any additional cost will need to come from the General Fund. The City is using a consultant to program the facility in a manner to maximze cost recovery to support operations and avoid exceeding current pool subsidies.
Those answer are what led me to attend the commission meeting where I was ignored.
In particular, my concerns are as follows, in no order of importance:
1. It seems to me the “better soils” statement isn’t equivalent to saying, yes the site is adequate and will work for the building. Can Great Falls citizens get a yes or no answer—will the soils at Lions Park support this facility? Why is no one giving us s definitive answer to that question?
The firm hired for the initial consultation work on the Aim High facility, L’Heureux Page Werner Architecture, was the same firm that designed the previous Natatorium, built in the 1960’s on a previously failed water facility site. I’ve asked this a number of times and no one has answered—why was the Natatorium rebuilt on that site in the 1960’s after the previous failure due to geotechnical issues? Did LPW advise the city to rebuild on that site?
2. Increased facility construction cost with no plan on how to deal with it. Have you priced construction materials lately? It appears the city has no contingency plan for increased cost of construction material.
3. City employees will be added. What does that mean for taxpayers? Take a look at the building site plan.
There are separate offices for aquatics, recreation supervisor, facility manager and sports supervisor. Does that tell you something about potential new city hires to run this facility? Looks to me like four new supervisory positions with associated employees also hired to work under those supervisors. Sounds like a lot of new city employees.
This while we as a city struggle to pay for more law enforcement, which on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (or nearly anyone’s hierarchy of needs) is much more important. Providing for citizen security is a fundamental government function, recreation is not.
4. I have great concerns about the cost of running the facility and whether it can be self-sustaining or whether the city will impose yet another tax levy to support it. Doyon’s answer that potential additional costs to run facility could come from general fund doesn’t alleviate my concerns. Doesn’t general fund money still come from the taxpayers? The money pit city golf courses ran up a cost to the general fund of well over a million dollars until their management was privatized. But I didn’t get an answer on whether the city would consider privatizing management of the Aim High facility.
5. My understanding is that Aim High’s primary purposes were to replace the Natatorium, which provided aquatic recreation and as an aquatics training facility for Malmstrom personnel. Why then, did the designer add basketball courts, an indoor running track, multipurpose/exercise rooms and child care facilities?
Don’t we already have plenty of basketball courts, indoor running tracks, exercise facilities and child care facilities throughout Great Falls for the public to use? Doesn’t the base also already have some of those facilities? Why the duplicative efforts?
Wouldn’t money be better spent on energy savings measures for a basic Natatorium facility rather than an expanded recreation center with duplicative facilities? Doesn’t the increased purpose of this city facility mean it also competes with private businesses such as the Peak and other for-profit multipurpose exercise facilities? Why is the city positioning itself to compete with those private businesses?
6. Why is the city allocating the area in Lions Park adjacent to 10 Ave S for future commercial development under the Aim High CUP? How can the Aim High CUP be used to set aside land for commercial development for a business or businesses not yet identified in the CUP?
Is this commercial development area meant to provide the Great Falls good old boy/girl network with prime commercial development space along 10th Ave S?
7. This project is partially federally funded therefore subject to the Code of Federal Regulations for contracting using federal funds. I hoped the city would have learned its lesson about following regulations regarding federal funds after HUD reprimanded the city for conflicts of interest in allocation of CDBG funds. But I’ve been alerted that the city’s handling of the Aim High project warrants further investigation related to federal regulations.
Despite hearing from many folks in Great Falls with concerns about this project, I was the only person to express any concerns at the meeting. When no one else shows up, it’s easy for the city and its associated cronies to dismiss me as a “Karen” even though I know I’m actually speaking for a lot of people.
I’m urging Great Falls citizens to please get more involved with your local government. Go to meetings, call in by phone or send emails to make your voices heard