Is downtown ideal for a recreational facility?

by Laura Hutchcroft
(Boone, Iowa)

Visitor Question: The City Council of my community (population 12,500) has purchased a long- abandoned building and parking structure, which occupied almost an entire downtown city block, and demolished it.

While I agree the building was an eyesore, and an impediment to progress, I have trouble understanding how our city leaders think this prime downtown real estate is the ideal location for a $10 million recreation facility. For perspective, this now empty lot sits at one of the busiest intersections in town, is directly next to the historical society (a building on the National Register), and is in the heart of the downtown business district.

Admittedly, the shopping district has struggled for more than a few years, there are vacant store fronts, but we have had several creative/art based businesses open just this year. We formed a city arts commission in 2019, and held a successful summer concert series in conjunction with our local farmers market. We have also developed a community arts project grant program, and have identified locations to place murals.

Several factors have downtown businesses "scratching their head" about the proposed facility that will go to a bond vote in March:

1) The infrastructure itself has been neglected over the years, and parking is already inadequate and in poor condition. No additional parking is included in the preliminary plan.
2) This will be a city facility, which means there is little property tax revenue being generated on prime downtown real estate.
3) This facility is replacing a YMCA which closed due to regional (YMCA Board) budget cuts, an aging facility, and an insufficient membership base to meet their expenses.
4) Included in the preliminary plans are 11 subsidized apartments, and 7 retail (600 - 1000 square feet each) store fronts. There are already at least 30 lower income apartments in the business district, and a 52 unit subsidized housing project is currently being built in town. The apartments have been included in order to qualify for grant money to help build the facility.
5) Lastly, there is no room for expansion on the site, and very little space is being allocated for outdoor community space.

They claim the facility will increase foot traffic, but I have my doubts.

Editors Reply: It is our policy, and a sound one at that, not to wade into local disputes because we don’t have all the facts, data, and history. In addition, we would never have cultural context and the benefit of community input. So our advice will be limited to the questions you and others in the business district should be asking. Here are a few that come to mind for us.

1) What is the basis for the decision to build small storefronts? Was there a market study, or even some anecdotal evidence, that this size is desired by people who want to start or relocate small retail businesses? It sounds as if the city might be thinking that these would act as a sort of business incubator where small businesses would start. They might be looking at expanding on the arts initiative in some way, but if so, they need to be talking directly with nearby artists to see if the arts community can afford to rent even a small space on a year-round basis. If the city has done some informal or formal research, this might be very sound policy. But if there have been no conversations with actual entrepreneurs or hopeful entrepreneurs, the development of these small footprint retail spaces is probably wishful thinking.
2) The retail spaces seem to us to be a very important part of this plan, because they will be the generators of foot traffic in the business district. Unfortunately, people tend to drive to recreation centers, if the city really means a fitness center or gym when they say “recreation facility.” It’s ironic, but that is what we are seeing. Of course, apartments of any sort generate a minor amount of foot traffic and retail patronage, but the real pull for foot traffic would be interesting retail that people would visit on a recurring basis. (This latter factor is our cause for hesitating about the potential of artistic businesses; people often visit all but the best of those only one or two times a year when they are looking for a gift or something for that one bare spot on their walls.) We reiterate our point above about whether the city has done any “research” on the need for and likely rent-up rate of this size of retail spaces.

3) While opposing the project on the basis of the subsidized housing may be a good political and organizing move, the 11 units do not represent any real threat to the business district if they are well managed. One bad tenant could cause problems in the business district until the issue is resolved, but in smallish town Iowa, the city or its management company should be able to handle any real problems. And of course these tenants consume some products and services from local businesses. While it is appropriate to be thoughtful about grouping low-income people together, your business district should be able to absorb this level of low-income housing, especially if this housing is oriented to seniors and working singles, but not to families.

4) You address a parking concern. Almost every business district thinks they don’t have enough parking and will strongly resist allowing even new businesses without parking. Usually this is a misplaced concern; people will find parking and walk to businesses if, and only if, the walk is interesting and pleasant. So you can use your influence to make sure that the city is thinking about where parking actually will occur and how they are going to make that walk seem wonderful. However, we do have a concern about where the residents of the apartments will park; that is quite a different situation than talking about retail customers or people going to the gym. Adjacent parking should be fine for residents, but in today’s world, you can’t really ask tenants to walk more than a block to their vehicles.

5) Outdoor community space seems like a separate issue, although you know your city’s layout and where that space is needed and will be used. If there is community input that outdoor space in this approximate location would help activate the downtown, you could make that argument, but without more information, we would have to advise that you might want to confine your campaign to the issue at hand.

6) Unfortunately, in most places there is no longer such a thing as “prime downtown real estate,” but assessors often have been reluctant to downgrade their assessment of downtown properties, so you are rightly concerned about the impact of all of this on the city budget. While a city-owned facility will not generate property tax, the city needs to evaluate property tax potential versus sales tax and revenue potential.

7) Lastly, business owners could and should consider whether the city has done adequate research on the demand for the recreation facility, which we are imagining to be a membership center in terms of access to fitness equipment at least. Can and will people (or their Medicare Advantage plans) pay the proposed membership or daily rate? Are there competing private businesses that meet some of the demand for the paying services that the city plans to offer? If so, how can and will the city’s operation be better than that of private enterprise, and what will be the impact of the closure of competing private businesses if that occurs? If Boone is like most communities, they will be including meeting space in their recreation facility plans. There certainly will be a demand for meeting rooms, both free and paid, but the financial aspects of building space for free use by community organizations need to be considered. On a different note, how much will people pay for meeting rooms for family reunions, bridal showers, and the like? These and other legitimate questions need to be asked of the city, and if the “recreation facility” seems to be based more on hope than any real survey research or strategy, that is grounds for business owner concern. The last thing any struggling business district needs is a good-sized facility that sits mostly empty after a few years, so taxpayers deserve good information about the demand for the various services in the recreation center.

Business owners need to ask the city for an informal sit-down meeting. Early mornings, lunches, or especially Sunday afternoons promote the leisurely conversation that needs to happen for both sides to fully express their reasoning and ask their questions.

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