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Does Gresham need a community center?

Opponents say alternatives, cost hinder facility's viability -

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - An artist rendering of a proposed community center and pool for Gresham. As a longtime member of the Gresham community, Mark Eisenzimmer cares about what happens to the city.

He and his wife, Debbie, have grown up and raised their children, and now play with their grandchildren in Gresham. They own Cascade Athletic Clubs, which has multiple locations across the region, including Gresham, East Gresham, Cascade 205 Portland and Fisher’s Landing Vancouver.

Founded in 1977, the Gresham-based club at 19201 S.E. Division St., serves as the flagship facility with 120,000 square feet and 7,000 members. It has two indoor pools, an outdoor water park, three basketball courts, spaces for tennis and racquetball, a weight room, hair salon, children’s play area, snack bar and much more.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Cascade Athletic Club owner Mark Eisenzimmer says his business would be hurt if a proposed public community center and pool is built in Gresham. The Eisenzimmers fear that if voters approve ballot measure 26-188, which would issue a $48 million bond to construct a public community center in Gresham, the publicly funded competition could jeopardize their long run of health club-based success.

“The community center should not be the next priority for this city,” Eisenzimmer said. “Public schools and education are more important. I don’t think people are avoiding moving to Gresham because we don’t have a community center.”

The Eisenzimmers main concerns are the facility will cost too much, put the city in direct competition with private businesses and redirect funds away from education.

Also on the ballot is a $291.17 million Gresham-Barlow School District bond, which may dissuade voters from supporting two measures that ask for money. The Eisenzimmers say the focus must remain on education.

“This community couldn’t pay enough to support this facility,” Debbie said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Cascade Athletic Club members work out on a recent morning. Need in the city

The proposed community center would be a 63,500-square-foot facility with a lap and leisure pool, rock-climbing wall, gymnasium, senior center and multi-use classrooms. There are also plans for a coffee shop and deli, conference rooms, children’s center, commercial kitchen, party rooms and a weight room.

The plans are contingent on voters approving the bond measure on Election Day, and because of the fluid nature of projects this large, some details may change. The planners have stated an interest in building the site somewhere in downtown Gresham, though no firm location has been agreed upon at this time.

“My entire time in office I’ve heard people say they want a community center where they can gather and take their kids,” Mayor Shane Bemis said. “We have put it on the ballot so they can finally decide with a vote.”

So far conceptual drawings for how the community center could look have focused on emphasizing a balance between the building and nature. Plans show large windows to utilize as much natural light as possible, with a striking lobby providing an impressive face to the structure.

“I wanted something the community could be proud of,” Bemis said. “This community center can influence the development of other businesses in the area and drive people to our city.”

Furthermore, he added, there is room for both public and private recreation facilities.

“There are cities all over this country and region that have community centers and successful private businesses operating simultaneously. This is about providing opportunities, not competing with the private sector, who undoubtedly plays an important role in providing recreational facilities in our community.”

The public has been included throughout the process of designing and planning for the proposed facility. The Rise Advanced Dream, a community-based initiative enacted to drive the conversation about the future of Gresham, expressed an overwhelming desire for a community center. The Commission on Children and Families also suggested that the Gresham City Council form a separate task force to support the project.

“There has been heavy outreach over the last few years about the community center,” said Eric Schmidt, the city’s community development director and community center project manager. “This is a project that has been years in the making.”

Comprising a diverse cross-section from across the city, the task force helped visualize the concept of the facility and prioritize the most important pieces to include. Members visited community centers in Southwest Portland, East Portland and Mt. Scott to get ideas.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Cascade Athletic Club, shown here, offers both indoor and outdoor swimming pools to its members. Owner Mark Eisenzimmer says a proposed public community center and pool would both hurt his business as well as take local tax dollars away from local schools. Cost for the voters

The $48 million bond to support the community center was conceived based on examples elsewhere in Multnomah County. That cost would represent $70 per year for a homeowner with an assessed property value of $200,000, or $5.83 a month.

“Typically in this type of project, this would include purchase of the land, potential demolition, design, construction of the facility and equipment,” said Elizabeth Coffey, the city’s communications manager.

The $48 million also is an “up-to” cost, which means there would be opportunities to save money and not use the full bond amount if possible. These savings could be found through potentially retrofitting an existing building, or during the construction process.

Research by the city showed a community center should be able to achieve a 55-60 percent cost recovery through user fees and charges, and officials say they could achieve even more. Money would be generated through monthly or single-use passes, with potential resident and nonresident fees in place to support locals.

Officials have stressed they want the facility to be open to all who wish to use it and could use subsidized passes or scaled fees so it is affordable for all residents.

One of the main concerns Mark Eisenzimmer has with the project is costs related to construction and operation of the facility. Everyone will have to pay for the site, though only a few will ever actually use it, he noted.

Eisenzimmer cited national data aggregated by American Sports Data Incorporated, showing 13 percent of the population make up the users of community centers, private athletic clubs, YMCAs or studios.

“That existing group of users is already being served by numerous public and private facilities within the community,” Eisenzimmer said. “The government should take care of things that private businesses are unable to provide.”

Eisenzimmer said government funding should be used on core functions such as police, fire and schools, along with maintaining sports fields and parks the city already has, making them safer and more versatile in their uses.

“I would be more inclined to look at alternatives rather than build a Taj Mahal,” he said. “I know we will be negatively affected by the community center, but really it will have a negative impact on the taxpayers.”

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - An artist rendering of the exterior of a proposed Gresham area community center and pool. Other community options

While some private clubs are expensive, others offer affordable membership fees between $10 and $20. There are also opportunities for public usage at many of the facilities. The Cascade Athletic Club on Southeast Division Street prices many out of the market at $100 a month for a couple’s membership, but there also are other options. Summer camps are open to the public, community racquetball leagues use the club’s courts and summer concerts are open to everyone.

Several local athletic clubs offer free memberships for most people older than 65 who are insured by Kaiser, Moda, Pacific Source, Providence, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Health Net, Humana and United Health. This creates a way for seniors to receive membership benefits even if they normally wouldn’t be able to afford one.

Beyond private clubs, there are several options for pool access within the community. Local high schools, middle schools and Mt. Hood Community College have swimming facilities open for public use. The Gresham High School pool is available year-round for lap swimming in the mornings and paid swim classes, while the Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center has a daily drop-in with $3.75 admission for seniors and children ages 17 and younger, and $5 for adults. As these facilities already serve a need within the community, Eisenzimmer says it makes more sense to reinvest in existing buildings rather than construct new ones.

“I’m willing to sit down and talk about anything with the planners,” he said. “A potential solution would be to have the city support existing pools at the schools by paying for lifeguards and help with maintenance funding.”

But Mt. Hood Community College wants to work with the city to avoid any conflicts a community center may create.

“The college is happy to see planners researching ideas on how to continue to make the city of Gresham a vibrant community for residents, and is always open to working with the city in partnership on these efforts,” said Bruce Battle, the college’s director of marketing and communications. “We hope through conversations we would avoid any duplication in programming.”

Another problem with the community turning to the public schools is trying to schedule around school activities, which receive priority for usage. During the school year it can be difficult to find time to use the facilities unless you attempt to swim in the early morning or late evening.

“Try to schedule gym time at the school district,” Bemis said. “It will be very difficult to carve out an hour.”

The community center would create a dedicated space within Gresham that wouldn’t require the general public to work around a tight schedule. From the beginning, it has been seen as a means to creating a more affordable option for the community.

“Council has consistently stressed how important it is for the community center to allow everyone to utilize its services,” Coffey said. “The focus is on creating ways to allow people to use the facility who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Cascade Athletic Club owner Mark Eisenzimmer is opposed to a proposed public community center and pool in Gresham. November vote

The community center bond measure will be on the same ballot as the Gresham-Barlow school bond, which some believe could result in too many groups asking for funding and lessening the possibility of either being passed. City officials disagree with this sentiment, citing a need for both improvements.

“You need both of the bonds,” Bemis said. “We need to make an investment in our schools and the amenities we are providing for the young families moving into the city.”

If the bond is approved in the election, the next phase will be finalizing design plans. The city council has expressed interest in moving quickly through the process, while keeping the final building well-designed and constructed.

But for Eisenzimmer, the decision come November is an easy one.

“We have our kids working in the business, and maybe someday our grandkids will work here too,” he said. “I want to be sure we keep our community healthy for them by investing in schools, not pools.”