Soldotna council sets aside field house funds

Soldotna is one step closer to an indoor field and recreational facility after the city council voted Wednesday to set aside $3 million for the project, should it come to fruition.

After some debate, the council voted 5-1 to appropriate $3 million for the project that would expand the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, likely to include a half or partial-field facility. The funds will not actually be spent yet — the money is needed so that the advisory team that has been investigating the possibility of an indoor recreation facility can use it as a local match when searching for grant and donor funds, according to the ordinance text.

The ordinance comes with the stipulation that the advisory team must present quarterly updates to the council on its work toward funding a potential facility, and that, if at the end of two years the council isn’t satisfied with the project’s progress, it can take back the appropriation.

Nearly 20 people testified at the meeting and many more showed up to demonstrate their support. Council member Lisa Parker, who participated over the phone, said that, by her count of public comments and emails to the city, 25 people so far have voiced support for an indoor recreational facility to the council, while two have voiced opposition and one had comments somewhere in between.

Tim Dillon, co-chair of the advisory team, said he has spoken over the last year to hundreds of people who would like to see the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex expanded.

“What we are asking for this evening is for you to give us a chance to go out and raise the money for this quality of living improvement,” he said.

Arguments in favor of a field house presented by those who testified at the meeting include quality of life improvement for residents in and outside of Soldotna, a boost for Kenai Peninsula teams to be more competitive with Anchorage and Mat-Su teams by allowing them to start practice earlier, and more teams and organizations coming to the peninsula for tournaments and events, bringing an influx of people staying in hotels and buying food with them.

Kyle McFall, athletic director for Soldotna High School, called his job of scheduling gym time for Soldotna sports teams in the spring season “a logistical nightmare.”

“We basically have to limit our own teams, our high school teams, to a 1 1/2-hour to 2-hour time slot to make it work,” he told the council. “And then I have to constantly turn down other community teams that want to get in there … just because we simply do not have the gym space to accommodate them. We also work with Community Schools, and so basically our gyms between Soldotna High School and Soldotna Prep are being used from 6:30 in the morning to basically 9 o’clock at night almost every single night of the week except for maybe Fridays.”

Two local physicians who testified Wednesday also brought up the fact that such a facility would benefit more than just sports teams on the peninsula. Dr. John Bramante, who practices in Soldonta and has also coached sports teams for two decades, said he met his wife while playing soccer in an indoor soccer league.

He also sees many elderly patients who could benefit from having a place to walk and get exercise during the long winter months when options are limited, he said.

“We have an epidemic of obesity in our communities across the country,” Bramante said. “I see patients all the time and talk to them about lifestyle changes and diet changes and getting some exercise … but for six months of the year we all know that it’s very, very difficult to get that exercise, period, for an adult, for an older person — a 70-year-old who needs to walk. They use the box stores frequently, which are not optimal.”

A few people who testified in favor of an expansion weren’t from Soldotna, like Kenai resident Ricky Gease, who said the potential project demonstrates the values of the peninsula community.

“It’s just a sign of the importance of making recreational activities available to youth,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much our society’s been co-opted by computers and smart phones. Having physical skills and having places to go out and play is incredibly important to our humanness.”

Arguments against the potential indoor recreation facility include its cost to the city while the state is already pushing more responsibilities down to local municipalities, and that it would only end up serving the middle class.

Jeff Dolifka, the other advisory team co-chair, said underprivileged kids are the reason he got involved with the project.

“One of the things that keeps coming up is the idea this would only be used for the middle class kids,” he said. “… The low-income people, the main group that we’re worried about, that’s why I’m trying to get this project done. … If you think it’s hard to get kids 15 miles, imagine getting them 2 1/2 hours to Anchorage. And there’s enough that I deal with just with the criminal justice system, and every single day I see these kids that are getting missed.”

Council members Linda Murphy and Tyson Cox in particular raised concerns about what could happen to city finances down the road if the project becomes a reality. Murphy, who said she is uncomfortable spending from the city’s reserves, pointed out that the city already subsidizes the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex “to the tune of about a half million dollars a year.”

“If this were 10 or 12 years ago when the state was not in the position it’s in now, I think that I would very readily support this,” Murphy said. “The truth is that the state is having real fiscal problems … and all of us up here know that when the state needs money … they can pass things on down to local governments and make us responsible for more and more of the things that the state used to provide. And so I can see us taking a big hit in our budgets in the coming years because of the problems that the state is experiencing … and so I’m really reluctant to spend our reserves in the fund balance on something that is going to increase our subsidy to that facility.”

Council member Paul Whitney said that Soldotna is the hub of the central peninsula and would continue to draw people from surrounding communities with an indoor recreation facility.

“Parks and rec is one of those quality of life things for a community,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any city, borough, county anywhere in this country that is making at least a break even on a parks and rec program. I think it’s something we need to provide to our community, not only our city residents but our entire regional area.”

Cox said that while he is personally all for an indoor field, he wants to make sure Soldotna residents know city funds could end up being used to maintain it long term, and only supports the project if city residents are OK with that. Cox was the lone “no” vote on the appropriation ordinance, and, when entering her vote, Murphy said she was “a reluctant yes.”

Murphy made a motion to amend the funding ordinance to stipulate that it would only become effective after an advisory vote of Soldotna residents during the upcoming October election, but that motion failed before the original ordinance was voted on.

Council member Regina Daniels said the ordinance does not lock the city in to spending the $3 million, and that the move will allow the advisory team to use the momentum it currently has to gain ground on a project the community has been talking about for years.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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