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‘Why pick on Mary Siah?’ Standing-room-only Crowd Tells Assembly: Don’t Demo Rec Center

Tim Ellis/KUAC

About a hundred people packed the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly chambers Thursday to declare they don’t want the borough to demolish the Mary Siah Recreation Center. They told Assembly members to reject Mayor Karl Kassel’s proposal to knock down the 68-year-old structure and they said the borough should instead fix it up and keep it operating.

Like many of those in the standing-room-only crowd, Tom Robinson questioned Kassel’s ordinance that calls for demolishing the rec center as part of a plan to begin catching up on the borough’s backlog of deferred maintenance.

“Why pick on Mary Siah? God! It doesn’t make sense!” he said.

Robinson and others who spoke during the meeting said the facility played an important role in their lives.

“I have a little bias there,” he said. “My kids learned to swim at Mary Siah. My grandkids learned to swim at Mary Siah.”

Debra DeLong told the Assembly the rec center is perfect for small kids. And she says it provided a much-needed diversion and meeting place for their moms and dads.

“That saved my sanity, as a mother with small children,” DeLong said. “There’s not a lot of things to do, at 40 below, for your children.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Many of those who turned out for Thursday's hearing had to stand at the rear of the Assembly meeting chambers, and in the hallway leading into the entrance.

Others – including Victor Siah, a relative of the facility’s namesake – talked about how the rec center’s warm pool, sauna and hot tub helps patrons keep in shape and recover from injury or illness.

“It is my belief that the Mary Siah Rec Center is more valuable today than ever,” Siah said. “So I guess what I’m asking the Assembly members to do is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s have a concrete plan of action, before we demolish the Mary Siah Rec Center.”

And Arlene Slocum adapted the old Woody Guthrie tune for her testimony, accompanied by guitar, which began: “This pool is your pool … this pool is my pool … we’ll make it our pool … if you play by our rules …”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Arlene Slocum delivered her comments in a song titled "This Pool is Your Pool," sung to the tune of the Woody Guthrie song with a similar title. Slocum passed around copies of the lyrics before the meeting, and some in the audience sang along with her.

Jim Gibertoni was among those who said they don’t believe the analyses on which borough officials based their conclusion that the rec center must go, because it’s in poor shape and would cost more to repair, or even maintain, than it would to tear down.

“The sky is not falling here, guys,” he said. “Everything I hear is embellishment on how old the thing is. I’ve walked through the building, I’ve worked on the building. I’ve been a plumber all my life and a builder. The sky is not falling.”

Gibertoni and others, including Maria Berger, cited a report issued in January on the rec center that many interpreted as a vindication of their belief that the facility needs some work, but overall is structurally sound.

Credit FNSB
Opponents of the proposal to demolish the rec center point to the findings of a Bettisworth North study issued in January, which they said suggests the structure is in need of repair and renovation, but us basically structurally sound.

“The engineering report funded by taxpayers states that Mary Siah is a functional and well-maintained building,” Berger said, “with no catastrophic safety issues.”

But Charles “C.B.” Bettisworth, who founded the company that generated the report, says the study was an overview that identified problems, including some that could be serious and require further inspection.

“As the mayor pointed out,” he said, “there’s a whole bunch of stuff that it (the report) says ‘This needs to be studied more.’ What this thing was useful for is to give you folks an idea of the order of magnitude of the problem that you have before you.”

Assemblyman Van Lawrence asked Bettisworth whether the structure was worth repairing if the borough were able to sell it, as some have suggested, to a private sector buyer, who would then assume the task of investing in repairs and renovation.

“Mr. Bettisworth,” Lawrence said, “if that Mary Siah building was privately owned, and you were the owner, and you had to make a decision, would you put more money into that building?

“Absolutely not,” Bettisworth replied.

Finally, at 11:30 p.m., after more than three hours of public comment, Assemblyman Matt Cooper moved to adjourn the meeting and resume deliberations at 6 p.m. Monday. The Assembly will then consider Kassel’s ordinance to appropriate more than $2.7 million to demolish Mary Siah and an old schoolhouse in Moose Creek and to repair four other borough buildings.

The Assembly also will consider a substitute ordinance, sponsored by Lance Roberts, to keep Mary Siah standing and invest more than $600,000 to repair it.

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.