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Borough Begins Infrastructure-maintenance Backlog Work by Proposing Mary Siah Closure

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Fairbanks North Star Borough officials announced Monday they’re planning to close the Mary Siah Recreation Center and demolish the 67-year-old structure this summer. It’s the first of several projects borough officials will be announcing in the coming weeks in an effort to catch up on an estimated $400 million backlog of deferred maintenance on more than 200 borough facilities.

Barbara Bell just got back Sunday from her job on the North Slope. And she says one of the first things she wanted to do was to take her 4-year-old granddaughter, Madison, to the Mary Siah Rec Center for a swimming lesson.

“She loves to swim!” Bell said, as Madison squealed and showing off her dogpaddling ability.

But Bell says she was disappointed when her daughter told her the borough was considering closing Mary Siah and demolishing it.

“She said, ‘Oh, did you hear on the news that they were going to close the pool?’ And I thought, oh, my goodness. What a loss for the community,” Bell said.

Mike Bork is director of the Borough Parks and Recreation Department. And he says he’s been hearing a lot about the proposal to close Mary Siah.

“Trust me, I’ve been getting it all weekend on social media,” he said in an interview Monday.

Bork says a lot of the people who’ve talked with him about the closure didn’t take it as well as Bell did.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Borough officials say they've gotten a lot of feedback from the public after this sign was posted on the Mary Siah Rec Center front door last weekend.

“There’s very much an emotional reaction going on right now, and I fully understand that,” he said.

The proposal to close and demolish Mary Siah, first reported Monday in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, is the first of several backlogged-maintenance projects that borough Mayor Karl Kassel says he and his staff will propose as they’re working on next year’s budget, which the Assembly will likely consider approving in early May. He says he’ll request the $680,000 needed to demolish the recreation center in an ordinance he hopes the Assembly will advance on April 12, after holding a public hearing on the proposal.

“The reason we’re starting with Mary Siah is the age of the facility and the fact that it is going to require several million dollars over the next couple of years just to keep it open for one year or two years,” he said.

Kassel says he and his staff concluded renovating Mary Siah wouldn’t be practical, because its long list of badly needed repairs would cost at least a couple million dollars and would require closing the popular facility for at least six months.

“The pool’s leaking,” he said. “The plaster in the pool is cracked and leaking, as well as the concrete substructure is also cracked and leaking. And so the whole pool itself also needs a major rebuild itself, which is obviously very expensive.”

The mayor says the building’s design is inefficient and no longer complies with state building code. And he says it makes no economic sense to invest more money in the facility.

'It's just not a wise expenditure of funds on that facility right now. We're better served by using that money to (help) build a new aquatics center.'
-- Borough Mayor
Karl Kassel

“It’s just not a wise expenditure of funds on that facility right now,” he said. “We’re better served by using that money to (help) build a new aquatics center.”

The mayor’s proposing to replace the rec center and, eventually, the Hamme Pool, with a $35 million aquatics center that would be financed through the sale of bonds that he hopes the Assembly will place on this fall’s municipal-election ballot.

“Hamme is really beyond its lifespan and has enough issues with it that it does need to come down at some point in the semi-near future, like the next three to five years,” he said.

Kassel says the Wescott Pool in North Pole should be good for another five to 10 years.

Bell, who’s been coming to Mary Siah since her kids were young, says she agrees it should come down.

“I would imagine that this place has got a lot of problems,” she said. “I mean, no fault of its own, but that it’s old and it needs to be upgraded.”

Bell says she was relieved to hear that borough officials were considering asking voters to approve the bond issue to pay for the an aquatics center.

“It would be more efficient. It would be easier to maintain – easier and cheaper. And I just believe it would be a great thing for the community,” she said.

Bork says that’s not what he’s heard from some area residents. He thinks many of those who’ve said they’re unhappy with the proposal may not have been aware of the backlog of maintenance at Mary Siah and 216 other borough facilities. He says some were relieved when he told them that he and his staff are trying to schedule most if not all of the Mary Siah classes and swim time at the Hamme Pool.

“We’re going to do everything that we possibly can to make it as easy of a transition, as smooth of a transition, as positive a transition as possible,” he said.

Bork says the closure and demolition of Mary Siah won’t require the borough to lay off staff, because they’re being reassigned to run the same classes at the Hamme Pool.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.