Rochester proposes $65 million community center in bid to extend local sales tax

Rochester officials must be fans of the “if you build it, they will come” way of doing things. They’re racing to fill in the blanks on a vaguely defined $65 million regional community and recreational center whose primary initial purpose appears to be convincing state lawmakers to open the door to extending the city’s local sales tax that expires in 2024.

The mad dash underway to nail down the design and target audience for the proposed project in time to beat a looming legislative deadline was detailed in the Post Bulletin.

“Obviously, we have some definition of the project to do here,” Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish told the Rochester City Council on Monday.

The proposed complex would be a resource for community events, as well as recreational activities, but specific uses have yet to be defined. The proposal is part of the city’s request to renew its 0.5% sales tax, which is set to end in 2024.

Minnesota lawmakers have until May 23 to make a decision on whether Rochester can seek the tax extension in a November vote.

In the search for ideas on uses for the proposed $65 million community center, a dozen “co-designers” from various interest groups will be paid to join the project. The city has no estimate of how much the design process will cost taxpayers, though the facilitator corralling the co-designers will likely receive a reported $40,000.

Chao Mwatela, the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion director, said the goal is to use multiple community engagement approaches to help develop a concept for the proposed complex, with the co-designers working with consultants to help develop a concept that will eventually be presented to the City Council.

She said the value of using community co-designers, who are paid for their time, is that they have links in the community that will bring other voices to the table.

“One person gets you a variety of experiences,” she said, noting the selection process typically seeks people who are not already community decision-makers but have strong community ties.

The $65 million for the evolving community center concept could be just the beginning. The local sales tax generates up to $13 million annually, a tantalizing target for elected officials. While city residents would still need to approve the sales tax renewal, city hall has a wish list including three more housing, street and water proposals totaling $140 million going before state lawmakers.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, a former DFL legislator, appears optimistic about state lawmakers’ approval. But not so much so when it comes to how her constituents will vote.

If approved at the state level, each request will require an individual question on the November ballot.

It’s a change in state requirements, and Norton said it raises concerns.

“I am concerned that the (regional community and recreation complex) focus, with the new way the Legislature has us ask these questions, is going to over-involve people in one of four important areas, and they will cherry-pick out the thing they are more involved with, and the things that in my mind are more important than this will be overlooked,” she said.

Imagine that, leaving the final say up to voters and the things that are most important in their minds.