Citizens: ‘Do something’ with center

Jason Ferguson

Frustration was palpable at a special meeting of the Custer City Council Aug. 30. The council and citizens in attendance discussed what the next step is in the stalled project to renovate the former Custer Elementary building into a home for Custer YMCA and city offices.
“If we could collectively say something to you, it would be, ‘just do something,’” said Kathy Johnson.
It was 2012 when the city, for very little cost, took ownership of the building from Custer School District. The idea was to transform the old building into a community center housing city hall, YMCA, office spaces for rent, a playground, etc. The timetable for the city and YMCA to be in the building was 18 months to two years. That was almost a decade ago. The original estimates for renovating the inside of the building were $400,000 to $1 million.
In February 2020, when the city received a revised guaranteed maximum price from Ainsworth Benning of $4.9 million (down from the initial $5.36 million) the cost of renovation had risen 500 percent. The $4.9 million was around half a million more than the city had budgeted and was beyond the city’s borrowing power.
The building has been a money pit from the beginning. The city spent $88,000 on the boiler and exhaust system for the 1981 wing. A few years later, over $150,000 was spent to put a sprinkler system in the building for fire rating. Nearly another $100,000 was spent on building and designing a support system to install steel beams for joist support. This doesn’t take into account the hours upon hours spent by volunteers (led by Custer YMCA director Rex Jorgensen) doing demo within the building, or the cost to heat the building all these years.
The project was scrapped altogether after the city rejected the guaranteed maximum bid and COVID-19 hit. The community center project has been on ice since, although the multipurpose gymnasium was being used for pickleball and YMCA-sponsored activities. Those ceased in April when three juveniles set a fire that severly damaged the center’s multipurpose room.
The vast majority of those at Monday’s meeting were pickleball players who questioned what they viewed as inactivity on decision-making regarding the center’s future.
“We’ve been talking about this stuff for eight, nine, 10 years,” and nothing has happened, a man in the audience said. “We need to make a decision and get things going.”
Alderwoman Peg Ryan said it is unfair to say the city has done nothing for the past 10 years, as the city continued to work on the building and develop plans, but none of those were able to be implemented for various reasons.
“We understand everyone’s frustration. We are frustrated, too. This fire kind of brought it all back that something needs to be done now,” Ryan said. “It is back up on the priority list and I think this meeting shows that.”
Alderwoman Jeannie Fischer said the city council made the best planning decisions it could with the information it was given, but once it was learned the guaranteed maximum price would be so far over the city’s borrowing capacity, it would have been irresponsible to approve a plan the city couldn’t pay for.
“Why at that time didn’t you start making other plans? If plan A doesn’t work, you go to plan B,” an audience member said.
Audience member Lynn Anderson said he wasn’t sure if the city was suffering from “paralysis by analysis” or if it was “just waiting for us to all die off.”
Alderman Todd Pechota said he didn’t find those kinds of comments useful.
“We are doing our damndest to try to make some progress, hence the meeting today,” he said. “I understand your frustration with pickleball. But this is a six, seven million dollar investment of taxpayer money we are talking about. I would appreciate it if you would cut some slack to the people around the room.”
“I don’t think you deserve it,” one man said back.
Members of the council reminded the audience that several members of the council, as well as Mayor Bob Brown, were not a part of previous decisions.
“Let’s just pass the buck; that’s what I’m hearing,” said Royed Hollick from the audience. “We weren’t here, so it’s not our problem. Well, it’s somebody’s problem. I was at the meeting nine, 10 years ago, and brought up points and what we wanted to do and so forth.
“Here we are nine, 10 years later and nothing has happened. Is there frustration on our part? You betcha. And just because you’re new doesn’t mean you don’t live up to the frustration we have given.”
The council addressed rumors that there are plans to tear the building down and make room for affordable housing. Brown said the council has not discussed doing that and would like to see a community center happen. Ryan said it is the general consensus the center is something the community wants, judging from he feedback given on what to do with the building.
Pechota added, however, there are people who would like to see the building razed and affordable housing constructed.
“I’m just being transparent. Those conversations are out there in the community,” he said. “There is a group of people who feel very strongly about affordable housing and getting that property back on the tax rolls.”
The conversation included the pros and cons of trying to renovate the current facility compared to demolition and reconstruction, or a hybrid where part of the building is torn down and part remains.
City planning administrator Tim Hartmann researched possible construction options that would result in a campus-type scenario which could be added to in the future if desired. He estimated the YMCA daycare area at around $1.33 million to construct new, $3.36 million for the gym/fitness center area and $878,000 to move city hall to a new building on the campus.
Those estimates are based on square footage of 5,500, 12,000 and 3,600 square-feet, respectively, which are less than the current facility, which Fischer pointed out has to be renovated to fit the city’s needs. That can create more difficulty than simply building to the city’s needs.
Fischer said the reconstruction approach might make grants more attainable than the all-in-one approach.
The renovation design estimate didn’t include a second floor for the planned city hall and left the third floor unfinished, while still costing the city millions of dollars.
Several pickleballers asked if the multipurpose room could be made habitable while the larger decisions are made. They offered to help with work that needs to be done and said they would sign waivers releasing the city of liability should something happen to them in the building.
Hartman said he would be apprehensive about the city allowing people into the room, as the fire damaged the roof and exposed the electrical system and plumbing.
Brown said he would investigate what it would require to make the room habitable again.
Others wondered if the juveniles responsible for the fire, or their parents, could be made to pay for the damages caused by the fire. City finance officer Laurie Woodward said the building was insured and the city hopes to recoup the insurance deductible from the juveniles through the court system.
She added the insurance company will pay the city replacement value to return the building to its pre-fire condition, while paying the actual value of the building minus depreciation if it is razed. No concrete numbers have been offered by the insurance company, however.
The council said it would get back to the pickleball players within a couple of weeks as to the feasibility of getting them back into the building with repair work, while pledging to make a decision as to whether to tear down the building and start over or continue with renovation.
“I know people want an answer and I do, too. But we have to live with our decision for a really long time,” Fischer said. “I would like to make sure we have numbers that back up what we decide to do,rather than what our gut tells us. This is a big decision.”

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