A boon to the community?
A "give-away" of public land?
A screaming deal for Payson?
A sweetheart deal for a nonprofit organization?
The debate about the proposed YMCA recreation center on five acres of town-owned land in Rumsey Park will turn on a vigorous debate about the contrasting answers to those questions.
But it's hard to debate the proposition that the proposed facility would provide a combination of recreational facilities that exist nowhere else in town -- including a year-round lap pool, play pool, therapy pool, climbing wall, teen center, sound studio, computer room, wellness center, multipurpose room, place to drop off kids while the grown-ups exercise -- and a 6,500-square-foot gymnasium that can provide a low-cost place for some town recreational programs.
All told, the YMCA has proposed constructing 20,000 square feet of building space and 15,500 square feet of combined pool area, to replace the single Taylor Pool facility. The YMCA would build the facility with an estimated $5.6 million raised from private donors, including $1 million already pledged by a Scottsdale-based foundation.
A group of Payson citizens in just three weeks gathered signatures from 16 percent of the town's residents to force an election in November that could block the deal between the town and the YMCA. Critics have complained about the use of park land and the notion of subsidizing a private business. Others have criticized the proposed site in Rumsey Park, which could require substantial grading and the loss of mature ponderosa pines that now shade the area.
The proposed facilities would add all sorts of bells and whistles to the current, aging town swimming pool, which operates only during the summer.
The plans call for a major overhaul of Taylor Pool. It would morph into an L-shaped design, with about two-thirds of the space devoted to a 25-yard long lap pool and the rest to a play pool that would probably include slides and other water features. The preliminary plan also calls for a small "therapy" pool.
The size and use of the revamped pool have been the subject of substantial back-and-forth negotiations and debate.
The town originally hoped the YMCA would build a heated, covered, year-round Olympic sized pool, which would be about 25 meters long and would support a variety of swim programs and competitions.
However, to shave about $1 million off the cost, the YMCA proposed merely remodeling the Taylor Pool, which is 25 yards long. That's sufficient for most high school swim competitions, but smaller than an Olympic pool.
Cameron Carter, an attorney who serves as the spokesperson for the Valley of the Sun YMCA, said that the YMCA hasn't yet had any conversations with Payson High School about possibly using the YMCA pool to support a swim team, but the YMCA has developed such cooperative agreements with schools in other communities.
The town had originally pressed for a deal that would give it control over the facility 30 to 40 percent of the time, which would probably require the town to put up $100,000 or more for operating costs. In the proposed deal finally negotiated, the town opted to give up control to save money.
The proposal would cut back the current summertime public swim hours slightly, but give the town no control over the facility beyond those required public swim hours. In return, the YMCA would absorb the entire cost of operating the complex.
The YMCA would also pay the cost of covering the pool area, using an innovative system with panels that could be taken down in good weather but keep the pool area warm in the winter.
Currently, the town spends $160,000 to operate the pool and collects $30,000 in fees -- generally about $2 per person. The YMCA has agreed to charge no more than the town's previous fees for the public swim hours, which means the town will save about $130,000 in operating costs on the pool.
In addition, the YMCA has agreed to pay $10,000 per year for an annual lease of the current facilities and about five acres of land in Rumsey Park. That gives the town a net savings of about $140,000, noted Carter, which is about equal to what a mortgage payment would run annually for land worth $1 to $2 million.
The complex would include many new features, some of which would duplicate the exercise facilities of existing, privately run gyms in town and some of which would be unique to the YMCA, with its strong tilt towards kids and families.
In the early negotiations, the town and the YMCA explored whether the center could incorporate a senior center, with a range of activities and exercise options. However, the early estimates for the cost of such a facility ran from $8 million to $10 million, which was more than YMCA officials thought they could raise in a community the size of Payson.
Space for teens
The preliminary plan does indeed offer some options for teens and kids. The plans for the 20,000 square feet in the building area include a sound studio where teens could make CDs of bands or performances.
In addition, the facility would include a computer room that would have programs and internet connections useful to kids as well as adults.
The other major addition would be a rock climbing wall, which people could scale while hooked up to ropes to prevent a fall.
The dimensions of the gymnasium also involved a lot of back and forth negotiations. The YMCA officials proposed a 6,500-square-foot gym, which would suit the needs of YMCA members and keep the budget down to the targeted $5.6 million.
By contrast, the town pushed hard for a 10,000-square-foot gym, which would accommodate the booming town recreational leagues for volleyball and basketball.
A 10,000-square-foot-gym could accommodate two basket ball games at the same time -- or four half-court games. The smaller gym could handle only one full game at a time, which would make it much less useful for the town's programs.
In the end, town negotiators gave up on the larger gym when the YMCA insisted it couldn't raise the extra $1 million. Besides, the town also dropped its efforts to control use of the whole facility part of the time, in an effort to eliminate any responsibility for operating costs.
The tentative agreement indicates the town can reserve the gym or any other facilities when they're not scheduled for use by YMCA members or programs and pay only the extra operating costs involved in hosting the activity there.
Council members who have supported the YMCA plan have said the joint effort offers the only realistic chance of bringing such a major recreational center to town.
The Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation financed a consultant's study that looked at what it would cost for the town to build its own recreation complex that included an Olympic sized pool and a 10,000-square-foot gym, but none of the other amenities.
The consultants put the cost at $10 to $12 million. The town would have to pay an additional $500,000 to $600,000 annually to operate such a facility, although it could likely recover a portion of that cost from fees.
Carter took issue with the claims of the YMCA's critics that the proposed lease agreement represents a sweetheart deal between the town and a private business.
In fact, noted Carter, the $140,000 annually the town would save would total nearly $3 million in the initial 20-year term of the lease, which would include provisions for extensions for up to 35 years. At the end of that term, the town would assume ownership of the entire facility.
Moreover, Carter said the park land the YMCA wants to develop was given to the town by the U.S. Forest Service, with restrictions that limit its use to recreation. The Forest Service has agreed that the lease to the nonprofit YMCA would satisfy those restrictions.
"I've heard groups say this is a giveaway -- that's just not the case," said Carter.
"We're talking about restricted land that can't be used for a commercial or residential site at all," which makes it hard to even set a price tag on the land.