North- and south-side rec centers: separate and equal

Carondelet Park

The City of St. Louis is moving forward with plans to build two new recreation centers: one for the south side in Carondelet Park and the other in O'Fallon Park on the north side. With dual basketball courts, workout rooms and swimming pools, the new centers — the first the city has built since 1970 — are expected to be on par with those in Richmond Heights, Ballwin and University City. In November 2006 voters signed off on a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase, which the city estimated would generate enough revenue to finance the new construction, with enough left over to repair the crumbling old neighborhood gyms.

Alderwoman Bennice Jones King, who represents the 21st Ward — where people have used the aging Wohl Recreation Center — says her constituents are eager for a state-of-the-art facility and often ask her about progress on the new center that's expected to be completed in late 2009.

City officials say they will solicit construction bids for the north-side center this spring, but already they are looking for additional money. The first ominous sign was that the low bid for the identical south-side center was $20.8 million, some $2 million more than expected. On top of that, parks officials aren't sure who will manage it.

Parks commissioner Dan Skillman says the city was counting on the YMCA because of its experience with fee-based facilities. But once YMCA officials looked at the numbers, they weren't interested. The north-side center would run at a deficit, but Skillman says that alone isn't the problem. The city anticipated that the north-side center would charge nominal fees to its low-income customers and require a subsidy of $700,000 a year. The YMCA thinks that deficit will be about $900,000 a year. That's a problem, Skillman says, because the one-eighth-cent sales tax can't cover the difference.

Skillman adds that the city is looking for other sources of money. Asked what those sources might be, he says, "That's out of my hands."

Board of Public Service President Marjorie Melton thinks there's still a chance to make the numbers work at the O'Fallon Park center. She points out that early estimates assumed the north-side center would not have an outdoor pool. That scenario changed as soon as aldermen started shopping the sales tax increase to voters.

"It was part of the discussion for getting it passed, that we have equity," Melton says. The outdoor pool raised the construction cost, she adds, but she's hopeful it will pay off in daily passes. "The biggest moneymaker in one of those facilities is the outdoor pool."

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