Survey results kill off joint rec center idea

Respondents overwhelmingly reject city-school district partnership
Tim Ryan

SHAWANO — A proposed joint city-school district recreation center was effectively scuttled Wednesday with the release of survey results showing overwhelming opposition to the project.

By a margin of nearly 2-1, survey respondents said they would not support the project, which had an estimated price tag of $28 million.

That would have meant property owners would have seen a $57 hike in taxes on a piece of land worth $100,000, which a majority of respondents cited as the main reason for their opposition.

Positive survey results wouldn’t necessarily have meant the project would have gone forward, but it would have cleared the way for a district-wide referendum in the spring. The negative results mean the referendum is also scrapped.

“If this question were put on a ballot today, I can say with high confidence it would not be successful,” said Bill Foster of School Perceptions, Inc., the firm that conducted the survey for the school district.

Foster shared the survey results Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Shawano School Board, Shawano Common Council and Shawano Park and Recreation Commission. More than 70 community members attended the meeting in the library at Shawano Community High School.

“It looks pretty obvious,” school board member Mart Grams said about the results. “There’s not a lot of debate here when it comes to the opinion of the community that I represent.”

That lack of debate, however, didn’t keep community members from arguing against the project, even after it was clear the project was dead.

A series of speakers complained about the increased tax burden that would be created across the school district to replace an existing city recreation center that most felt was still adequate or could be improved at much less cost.

Others objected to a government-sponsored recreational facility that would compete with private fitness centers in the city and questioned how the school district’s initial intent to improve the high school’s limited weight room facilities blossomed into what one speaker described as a “Taj Mahal.”

Some board members pushed back on comments that the school district was trying to force the recreation center on the community, saying the purpose of the survey was to gauge community interest — or, as it turned out, the lack of it.

“Now we have our marching orders,” board member Michael Sleeper said.

Board member Chris Gull said that, in spite of what his own opinion might be, he was determined to follow the will of the community.

“I’m an elected official and I represent you, and you guys do not want this,” he said.

The question for the school board now becomes what happens next.

“I think going forward we’ll still see what our endgame is, what are our real needs and try to address those,” board president Tyler Schmidt said.

He said the city will probably look at its own recreation center needs separately.

“This was an attempt to try and do a partnership,” he said. “And obviously (the survey) spoke and the partnership isn’t going to work and that’s fine.”

He said the school district and city would continue looking at other ways to partner to save taxpayer money.

The proposed joint-recreational and aquatic center would have replaced the city’s existing recreation center and expand facilities at Shawano Community High School.

It would have been located adjacent to SCHS, on the north side of the building, and would have include the school’s existing competition pool.

It would have added a separate community pool area; a fitness area, including weights and cardiovascular equipment; a multi-purpose space; gymnasium; racquetball court; and indoor multi-purpose facility and walking track; as well as offices, bathrooms, lockers, storage and other amenities.

According to the survey results, 58% of all district residents were opposed to the project, while 33% were in favor and 9% were undecided.

Residents with children in the school district were in favor of the project by a margin of 49% to 43% with 8% undecided.

Residents without children in the school district overwhelmingly opposed the project by a margin of 65% against to 25% in favor with 10% undecided.

Among all district residents opposed, 76% said the project was too expensive and would create too much of a tax burden.

There were 1,651 responses to the survey, or about 20% of district residents, which Foster said was on the high end of the average response for such surveys.