|Leap of Faith|
|Written by John Ise, BT Contributor|
April bond issue deserves our support
In April, Miami Shores residents will not only elect a new Village Council, they’ll be voting on a bond that calls for the construction of a new community center for recreational programming to replace the aging 17,500-square-foot facility at 9617 Park Dr. For the past two years the Village has been engaged in a lengthy and detailed planning process on how to proceed with a new community center.
Pricey consultants were hired to conduct interviews, hold public hearings, and conduct a Village-wide survey of 1200 households (with 453 responses). The process concluded with a planned new facility covering 64,000 square feet.
The two-story building is projected to cost close to $20 million and host a fitness area, gymnastics area, indoor jogging track, classrooms, arts and crafts area, multipurpose rooms, an indoor playground, concessions, and space for after-school programming.
All this has left many residents unsettled, if not opposed to the plan: too big, too expensive, and generate too much traffic, crime, and the sinister, ever-feared non-residents, according to social media outlets.
Let’s start with the cost. When one looks at making a large household purchase -- a new car, a vacation, a renovation -- there are two approaches. There are those who look at what they want and then back into the price. Then there are those who take a more tightwad approach -- they set their price ceiling and back into what they can get. My gut tells me the Village/consultant went with the former approach.
I’m looking at that survey and think the key question on it was: “Would you and your household be willing to increase property taxes by $170 to $190 per year (cost for an average home in Miami Shores) to build, operate, and maintain a new Community Center with the types of facility spaces and programs most important to you and members of your household?”
Of the 453 household respondents, 38 percent said yes, 28 percent said no, and rest split evenly between maybe or not sure. A modest inclination to yes is how I read it.
And here is where I see a key disconnect. The 64,000-square-foot facility comes with a price tag of $20 million, translating into a $285 annual property tax hike on the average homeowner (the average assessed value of a home in Miami Shores being $229,000).
With the retirement of the aquatic center bond, the average hike, however, shrinks to $237 per year, but it’s still 25 percent more per year than the number offered in the survey.
I served on the Village’s Recreational Advisory Committee from 2015 to mid-2016, when much of this was in formation. During that time, I never felt we had a full grasp of how to process what was progressing, and I remember thinking that the cautious and conservative instinct of Villagers could ignite and wreak havoc on the project.
The main concerns then were whether the design would fit into the neighborhood, and its large size. At an early meeting with the consultants, I said suggested that the residents be given several choices, meaning, present the Village Council with three designs and a range of price points. (But then again, I know precisely nothing about building a $20 million community center.)
What we ended up with was a top-of-the-line proposal. In January the Village Council placed the bond on the April ballot, while hearing residents fume about legitimate (cost, size/scale, parking/traffic) and illegitimate (crime, “this is being built for nonresidents”) concerns.
The council then tasked staff with scaling down the proposal to a smaller facility, with a more modest price. But rather than quelling concerns, this has raised more uncertainty.
On January 30, Village manager Tom Benton attended a packed public meeting organized by the Village Homeowners Association on the evolving recreation center proposal, now more modest in terms of design and costs.
Residents quickly began to wonder what exactly they’d be voting on come April. As it stands, we are left with no design, no visual schematic, no cost estimate for construction or operation, and no list of its amenities. What exactly are we buying? As one resident sighed, this sounds like providing a blank check to the Village to do, well, something.
Now with all this -- the vocal opposition, the missteps, the legitimate concerns -- I rise in support of the blank check.
If you accept that the Village needs a new recreation facility to serve current and future residents for the next 50 years, and if you can stomach the $15-$20 per month price tag, and if you have reasonable degree of trust in our Village officials and personnel, then there’s a case to be made for a yes vote.
Let’s admit we can live without many of the bells and whistles. For example, instead of a fitness center that will charge membership fees, why not improve the outdoor exercise station (next to the tennis courts), which is free to all, and hire a trainer to lead exercise groups periodically?
Instead of an indoor track, why not beautify Constitution Park (with its circular sidewalk) with shady landscaping and designate it as a “track”? Of course, folks will bemoan the tropical Florida heat, but take a page from Zoo Miami and use strategically placed water misters to provide some cooling relief. Shade cover, in the form of trees or awnings, can provide up to ten degrees of comfort. Take advantage of our natural environment. Remember, people worldwide relocate to Florida for its climate and sunshine.
I understand that a yes vote for the bond, for something unseen and unknown, seems like a real leap of faith. And yes, maybe we only will need to borrow, say, $15 million for what is ultimately produced, so why are we saddled with a price tag of up to $20 million, pegged to the original design, which we are now rapidly scaling down?
But all the issues and concerns are eminently fixable and resolvable. We’re voting on a bond up to $20 million, with an emphasis on “up to.”
In the coming months, with proper civic pressure and attention, the Village staff and officials should be able to deliver a less expensive facility that should meet most residents’ concerns.
A no vote? That will leave a dispirited, chastised Village Council and staff wary of taking another a bite of this apple any time soon. “Keep the process moving forward,” said Councilman Mac Glinn.
Not every Village staff member or elected official is my personal cup of tea, but I’ve yet to meet anyone I feel is nefarious or suspect.
And that alone is enough to take the leap of faith.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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