Proposed $65 million Rochester community center in limbo

Rochester officials have proposed building a $65 million regional community and recreation center. They’re using it as a vehicle to build legislative and local support for approving an extension of the city’s expiring local sales tax, which generates millions of dollars a year for pet projects.

Yet there’s still no apparent plan for who would use the proposed complex, what services would be provided, or why the vaguely defined proposal should cost $65 million for that matter.

Nevertheless, the city planned to move full speed ahead, hoping to hire an architect for $60,000 to help officials get a handle on what the community center should be and do. Until, the Post Bulletin says, the city council stepped up, putting the project in limbo, at least for now.

A plan to narrow the goals for a proposed regional community and recreation complex failed to receive approval Monday.

The Rochester City Council voted 3-2 against plans to use a mix of community members and a Minneapolis architectural firm to outline options for the potential complex, which could be funded with city sales tax revenue, which has generated $12.2 million to nearly $14 million a year in the last three years.

“This kind of muddles it up,” council member Shaun Palmer said in questioning a proposed $60,000 contract with LSE Architects. “We don’t really know what we are going to do, and I don’t know what the architect will do.”

The city wanted to include a variety of community groups to throw out ideas on uses for the community center in collaboration with the architect to help make certain they stayed within the $65 million budget. What could go wrong?

“The idea of having the concept design go along with the co-design process is so that the concept design can be reflective of the feedback we get from the community,” said Chao Mwatela, the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion director, noting the process would provide a visual concept to show to the council and voters.

Jenna Bowman, Rochester’s strategic communications and engagement director, said the concept creation isn’t meant to produce specific construction plans or determine a location for the project. Rather, it would provide a better understanding of what the community wants included and what is possible, along with details regarding potential construction and operation expenses

The cost for the conceptual groundwork and design alone was expected to total more than $100,000. But the idea of spending six figures of public funds on a poorly defined project that could still be rejected by the state legislature raised too many red flags for some city councilors.

Palmer and others on the council said they expect state lawmakers will eventually approve extending the sales tax for the proposed regional community and recreation complex, but they didn’t want the council to get too far ahead of the process.

“I think we are pushing this design that we need to answer questions for the voters, which we really don’t need until the end of July or August,” said Palmer, who was joined by council members Mark Bransford and Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick in opposing the proposed concept design work budgeted at $105,000.

So it’s back to the drawing board for city staff waiting to see whether state lawmakers give Rochester approval to put extending the local sales tax before residents in a citywide vote this fall. With any luck, that should allow the city and co-designers time to develop a concept for a $65 million community center that’s driving their campaign to re-up local taxes.