Concerns persist over $65 million sports center’s impact on sales tax vote

You can see why the Rochester City Council went for broke in overriding Mayor Kim Norton’s veto on the proposed $205 million extension of the city’s expiring local sales tax set to go before voters this fall. After all, Rochester residents have already re-upped the city’s half-cent sales tax three times since first approving it back in 1983.

The council shot down the mayor’s plan to allow voters to pick and choose between the four projects up for consideration on their own merit–$50 million for streets, $50 million for economic development, $40 million for water projects and $65 million for an as yet ill-defined regional sports and recreation complex. Instead, voters will vote up or down on the projects as a whole, all or nothing.

Yet less than three months out from the election, the Post Bulletin notes that concerns still surround the need for the sports complex and the extent of public support for it.

Is a proposed $65 million regional recreation and sports complex an albatross that could doom efforts to renew the city’s local option sale tax? It’s a question up for debate for city leaders and residents…

To [Rochester Mayor Kim] Norton’s mind, the recreation complex wasn’t ready for prime time. There were still key unanswered questions: Where would it be built? Who would run it? Who would benefit? What would the final price tag be? Norton felt that not enough “up-front work” had been done to determine this was a project the community wanted.

“It was an amount that had been decided on, but not what the project was, where it would be and who would run it,” Norton said. “Because of that, to me, it makes it vulnerable in the public’s eyes. I didn’t want to lose other projects because of it.”

By law local governments cannot promote ballot questions. But the city recently launched an informational website to educate voters on the projects up for funding, including the sports complex that the city continues “to engage residents to gather their input as it further develops plans.”

The proposed complex will provide state-of-the-art facilities for Rochester residents and regional tournaments. The complex would also strengthen the City’s sports tourism market by attracting more state and local amateur sports, thus helping utilize the City’s 6,000 hotel rooms and area restaurants.

Some residents see the sports center as more of a want, than a nuts and bolts need, partly because sports facilities were already funded by prior local sales tax revenue.

Stroll around 125 Live, a social and fitness facility built with $12 million in sales tax dollars, and you find a number of people who find merit in Norton’s reasoning. Linda Hanson, 74, said she liked Norton’s idea of separating the questions out individually, so voters could decide for themselves what Rochester “needed” as opposed to “wanted.”

“I do think there are a lot of people that would want a sports complex,” Hanson said. “I’m not one of them. I agree it’s a want, and the public should be able to say, ‘Yes, I want to spend the money on that,’ or ‘No, I don’t.’”

But supporters insist that the recreation center stands out compared to the other projects and will draw more voter support than not.

Rochester City Council member Shaun Palmer, one of the six to override Norton’s video, said he can easily imagine how some voters might rationalize why not to vote for the other, more humdrum projects. Flood control? There hasn’t been a flood in Rochester in 45 years. And more money for roads? Don’t I already pay for roads with my taxes?

But the Rochester community, he is convinced, will see the value of an array of basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts and multi-purpose turf fields — an unparalleled expansion of city’s sports infrastructure that will not only benefit families but resonate with economic development potential.

Either way, time’s running out on city hall’s window to get out the word and make the case for a $65 million project still in search of a mission.

Yet advocates for extending the sales tax face a short runway to sell and promote it. The special election is three short months away. While there is talk of a citizens group forming to campaign for the sales tax renewal, there haven’t been any community meetings so far.