Advisory group wants to ask Baldwin City voters for half-cent sales tax to renovate gym; City Council has some questions

photo by: File photo

The Baldwin City Council wants to hear from the Baldwin City Recreation Commission before considering approving a bond referendum asking city voters to approve a sales tax to convert the old gym at Eigthth and Chapel streets into a community center.

A citizens advisory group wants Baldwin City to hold a referendum on a half-cent sales tax that would allow for renovations to a historic gymnasium, but several Baldwin City Council members have some questions first about the timing of the proposal and what the building should be used for.

On Jan. 19, the council got an update from the advisory group, which was appointed last year to brainstorm uses for the 1940s-era gymnasium at the corner of Eighth and Chapel streets. The group was also tasked with researching ways to fund the extensive work that the building would need.

Casey Wright, a member of the advisory group, told council members that the advisory committee wanted to use the gym as a multi-purpose recreation and community facility, and he and Lawrence architect Jay Zimmerschied showed the council some preliminary plans. The proposed renovation project would outfit the gym with retractable basketball goals, volleyball nets and batting cages that could quickly be swapped out, a kitchen and new bathrooms, Zimmerschied said. It would also divide part of the building into two stories — the bottom floor of this area would have two large multipurpose rooms, while the top floor would have some office space and an observation area that looked out over the gym.

Zimmerschied said the renovations would cost $2.26 million to complete. However, he also estimated that the project would be eligible for $474,763 in historic preservation tax credits because the gym was built in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project and is on state and national historic registers. That would reduce the city’s total cost for the project to $1.786 million, Zimmerschied said.

To pay for the renovations, Wright said the committee proposed asking voters to approve a new half-cent sales tax. The revenue from the tax would then be used to retire a $2 million bond that would pay for the renovations and some of the building’s operating costs. Under the proposal, the sales tax would fall to a quarter of a cent when the bond was retired after 20 years, and the revenue from that would be used to fund the facility’s operations.

Wright said the advisory group also conducted a survey of more than 300 residents in December that asked how they would feel about renovating the old gym into a community center. About 57% of the 321 respondents, or 186, said they would support such a project; 78 respondents opposed the plan; and the remainder marked “maybe,” Wright said. The survey also asked whether respondents would support a new sales tax to fund such a project, and the responses were split nearly 50-50. The survey didn’t ask for any other ideas on how the facility might be used.

Two members of the City Council, Cory Venable and Susan Pitts, supported the advisory committee’s recommendations. But other members of the council had reservations. Councilwoman Julie Constantinescu said she wasn’t sure that a community center would be the best use for the old gym and that it might be better to turn it into a visitors center. She and Councilman Scott Lauridsen also had concerns about putting a sales tax referendum before voters during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lauridsen wondered why the advisory group’s survey didn’t ask about any other ideas for how the building could be used.

Councilman Brian Cramer, meanwhile, said he liked the idea of a community center but wondered why the Baldwin City Recreation Commission hadn’t given its input on the plan. He also said he thought the city should complete its new strategic plan before putting a sales tax question before voters. Specifically, he suggested that it would be better to wait until the November city government and school board elections.

The council asked city staff to further study the timing of a referendum and to reach out to the Baldwin City Recreation Commission for feedback. Council members are scheduled to consider the gymnasium issue again on Feb. 2.

Baldwin City has owned the building since 2019, when the family of late Baldwin City Councilman Steve Bauer donated it to the city.

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