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Supporters Turn Out for Budget Hearing to Again Urge Borough to Fix Recreation Center


Supporters of the Mary Siah Recreation Center turned out in force Thursday to again ask the Borough Assembly to reconsider plans to demolish the 67-year-old facility, which officials say is deteriorating. Most of the nearly 40 people who spoke during a public hearing on the borough’s proposed 165-million-dollar budget – which Assembly members advanced – urged them to find money to fix the rec center and keep it operating.The supporters include Pam Miller, who said, “I urge you to give full funding for the next year for the Mary Siah Rec Center, and continue its operation.”

Gerald Whitton says he doubts reports generated by the borough and private-sector firms it contracted. “I think that building is in good shape,” he said. “All this stuff about repair requirements to me is just a smoking gun. It’s just not true.”

Diane Darnall asked Assembly members to place a higher priority on how demolishing the facility will affect the people who use it. “I encourage you all to look at what Mary Siah does for our community. It’s not just dollars per square foot.  It’s much more than that to the community.”

Pam Miller, Gerald Whitton and Diane Darnall and others all said the borough is moving too quickly to knock down the aging rec center. They say borough officials should wait until results of an engineering study now under way are available.

And some, like Kathy Drygas, suggest the borough should appropriate enough money to fix the rec center enough to keep it operating until the borough can build a replacement. “I realize that we need a new facility,” she said, “I get that. But it doesn’t make sense to me to tear down the existing building. What are we supposed to do?

'We do not have the financial resources to maintain everything in our system -- all 217 buildings.'
-- Karl Kassel,
borough mayor

Assembly members agreed last month to delay Mayor Karl Kassel’s proposal to demolish Mary Siah as part of a 10-year plan to catch up on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of backlogged infrastructure maintenance. They reprogrammed the $680,000 the mayor had proposed to pay for the demolition and decided to review the issue when the engineering study in completed this month.

But Kassel reiterated the problem the borough faces when he presented the 800-page budget document to the Assembly Thursday.

“We do not have the financial resources to maintain everything in our system – all 217 buildings,” Kassel said. “It’s just isn’t there.”

But Cheryl Corrick and others say they don’t believe Kassel’s statements that inspections show the  rec center has structural problems that would be expensive to repair and would require the facility to be shut down for months at a time while repairs are under way.

'There's a feeling that maybe a lot of facts are being hidden from us.'
-- Cheryl Corrick

“There’s not a trust here that we need to have,” Corrick said. “Part of the problem is we’re hearing a lot of speculation and not a lot of facts. And there’s a feeling that maybe a lot of facts are being hidden from us.”

Scott Calder suggests that even if serious problems requiring expensive repairs are found during the study now under way, the borough should find money in the budget to fix the rec center, because so many people want it to stay open.

“Mary Siah is a unique facility, Calder said. “It provides essential human services and I think you should continue to operate it. I realize the numbers maybe don’t make sense, but given the fact that they are essential human services, I think that’s just a situation that needs to be addressed.”

After the public hearing, Assemblyman Van Lawrence moved to advance the budget for further consideration and likely adoption during the Assembly’s May 10 meeting.

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.