Editor’s Note: This is the second half of a two-part series regarding the planned Big Horn Community Center. An article in Friday’s Sheridan Press focused on the process by which the land was acquired and the public was made aware of the project.
RANCHESTER — While some residents have expressed concern about the procedures taking place around the proposed Big Horn Community Center, other residents are concerned about how the center is being paid for and how it will be financed in the future.
Ranchester resident Laurie Morris said her concern is that taxpayer money is being used to fund a community center, when a template already exists for a successful community center model that operates as a nonprofit, rather than a taxpayer-funded entity.
A nonprofit model
As an initial organizer and former board member of the Tongue River Valley Community Center in Dayton and Ranchester, she noted that the center was set up as a nonprofit entity and did not receive any money from Sheridan County School District 1 Recreation District until last month.
“As far as I am aware up until last month the TRVCC hadn’t received a penny from the recreation district,” Morris said in an email to The Press. “With the unannounced change of procedures they gave $10,000 to TRVCC last month. They (TRVCC) also received zero support from them over the last 13 years.”
Moving forward, Sheridan County School District 1 Recreation District Board Chairman Zac Cummins said TRVCC can expect funding similar to or more than the $10,000 from the district. In addition, TRVCC was approved last year for Sheridan County Optional One-Cent Sales Tax money for the next four years. They will get $12,500 per year according to Sheridan County Administrator Reneé Obermueller.
“I would like to see the taxpayers and us voters decide where and what kind of a community center Big Horn would like to have, not the recreation district and school district decide,” Morris continued. “If we must have it, maybe Big Horn would like to have their community center in Big Horn (versus outside of town). I would like to see the recreation district and the school district out of the community center business. Let the community of Big Horn form a 501(c)3 organization nonprofit, along with the anticipated donors, and purchase the land and the building.”
When asked, TRVCC Director Erin Kilbride, confirmed that although the center received its first grant for $10,000 from the recreation district last month, it has partnered with the district on some programs through the years. She said because the recreation district maintained its own staff and programming for many years, the two entities operated independently of each other but sometimes partnered for events or classes.
Cummins and SCSD 1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith both acknowledged that the working relationship between the two entities has not always been positive.
“The TRVCC would ask the district for money, the district would say no,” Cummins said about the relationship before he joined the recreation district board.
He added that in the past the board struggled to fairly provide funding to both the Big Horn and Tongue River sides of the district.
Smith said he, “does not deny a lack of awareness about the recreation district,” and how it works.
Kilbride added there has always been some confusion in the community about how the center is funded and noted that since its beginning, it has been operated with donations, grants, membership fees and program fees.
A government gift
While Kilbride said the TRVCC received little help from the school or recreation districts, SCSD 1 Superintendent Marty Kobza and Smith countered that the TRVCC did receive taxpayer money through the school district’s donation of the old high school in Dayton.
“The school district actually did donate it to the city of Dayton which in turn gave it to TRVCC,” Kobza said. “By doing that and not demolishing that building, in essence the school district required itself to buy a football field (a purchase of 10 acres) which cost the district money ($275,000). This isn’t a case of Big Horn getting a benefit that Tongue River did not.”
“Our intention was to donate it to the TRVCC but couldn’t because of restrictions on the (state) grant,” Smith said.
The building was donated to the town of Dayton, which still owns it and rents it to the TRVCC.
“We actually don’t own the facility. The town owns it,” Kilbride said. “We lease it from the town of Dayton for $1 a year.”
The building opened in 2009 and was remodeled using state taxpayer funds through a state program to rehabilitate abandoned school buildings. As a nonprofit, the TRVCC was not eligible for the funds but the town of Dayton was.
Kobza said if the building had not been refurbished for use, it would have cost approximately $1 million to demolish. Kobza added that the district also could have sold it and made money. A sale, though, still would have required the purchase of land for a football field.
In contrast to a nonprofit organization, the recreation district is funded with a mill levy assessed on property within its boundaries. According to the Sheridan County Assessor’s Office, the district received $76,415 in 2012, $77,044 in 2011 and will likely take in similar amounts in 2013.
In addition, Cummins said that with the new structure of the recreation district as a grant making organization, this funding will be distributed evenly between programs on the Tongue River and Big Horn sides.
Opportunity emerges, costs arise
Kobza and Smith said they understand that residents of Tongue River may feel that Big Horn is being handed a community center rather than having to build one up from the grassroots level, but the combined events of the fire and the recreation district’s purchase of land created an opportunity that did not exist at the time the TRVCC was being created.
“The fire sort of changed everything,” Smith said. “Events overtake you and you have to respond to them rapidly. There would be no way we would have been able to do what they are doing if the building hadn’t burned to the ground. I understand their (Tongue River residents) frustrations, but you have to take advantage of opportunities.”
Cummins said the order of events shouldn’t matter.
“I understand it isn’t following the same order, but why does that matter,” he said. “I guess I don’t understand the frustration. Why should one person not want someone else to have what they have?”
In addition to the initial expenditure on the land by the recreation district, Ranchester resident Mark Porden said he is concerned that the recreation district is being unrealistic about the costs of staffing and operating a community center. If a nonprofit organization does not materialize to take over administration of the center, the recreation district will be responsible for the $375,000 loan payment. Cummins said that will be paid in annual installments of $13,000, with the first installment due in July.
“How will they manage and maintain a facility in Big Horn on $40,000 a year?” Porden questioned. “Remember half of (their) $80,000 budget belongs to the Tongue River side. Payments on the note will eat up almost all of the Big Horn’s $40,000.”
“Privately funded TRVCC was started and operated in Ranchester, at first in a small three-room location in the Ranchester Mall and then it purchased and moved into the old Gibson Lumber building,” Porden said. “The YMCA donated some of their old exercise equipment and concerned members of the community donated time and materials to make it a reality. Several businesses discounted their services to help with the remodeling project. This was all funded by private donations and not one dollar of taxpayer money.”
Cummins said he actually does hope that the Big Horn Community Center eventually is taken over by a nonprofit that will manage the center in a similar way to TRVCC, but at this time, no such organization has been formed.
“At the very least we’ve got some spaces in the building we can lease out for child care or classroom stuff that would pretty much make our payment,” Cummins said.
However, even if a nonprofit does not form or come forward, he said the recreation district is able to take financial donations from the public to help provide financing for the center and programs. He also said that leasing of space in the building is an option to raise funds, as is charging for programs that the center could offer.
To help defray costs, the recreation district is in the process of creating a memorandum of understanding with the Sheridan Tennis Association to allow them to build a 21,000-square-foot tennis facility on the land. The facility would likely be connected to the Big Horn Community Center by a breezeway, Cummins said.
During the regular board meeting of the recreation district on Jan. 9, tennis association members visited with the board about proposed use of the space. The minutes note it was discussed that the community center could man daytime operation, the parking lot and utilities and that ideally, a breezeway between the center and the tennis facility would be separate and locked with members having an access code to enter. Two tennis courts and two pickleball courts were proposed and the association expressed an interest in working with school groups and offering classes, as well as having events such as tournaments and invitationals.
Cummins said that details are still being negotiated, but he expects that the tennis association would have to pay for its own utilities use and would have to allow some public access to the facility, since the organization is a private club.
Both Morris and Porden note that they are not against a community center in Big Horn, but they feel the community should have more buy-in to the process and raise the funds locally to support it, rather than have it funded through taxpayer money.
“Of course there would be benefits to the center,” Morris said. “The community could receive all of the wonderful benefits that we receive out here from TRVCC, that we have worked at so hard for the last 13 years to get. If the funds are raised and secured, and Big Horn citizens come together and form a nonprofit, and get the taxpayer and school district out, it could be okay.”
“If Big Horn wants a community center then they need to assemble a dedicated group of supporters, create a nonprofit organization, collect several million dollars in private donations, put in very long hours with no pay and make it happen,” Porden added. “That is what the people of the Tongue River community did to create TRVCC and it was worth it.”