Big plan, big price

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Brad Thomas, a state worker who serves as unofficial spokesman for Swim Play Frankfort, has been drumming up support for a major project with a major price tag: a $25 million, 300,000-square-foot recreation center for Frankfort and Franklin County. It’s the sort of thing local politicians might love to have as concrete evidence of their progressive spirit, but nagging questions have to be answered first.
The most obvious is who’s going to pay for this ambitious undertaking. It’d cost five times as much as the aquatic center city government shelved due to the economic collapse of 2007. SPF says its indoor/outdoor facility could be built with $5 million each (cash or in-kind) from the city and county and $20-25 million from the state. The organization proposes to use its non-profit status to bond the debt and thereby avoid endangering local government’s credit ratings. Community donations would be solicited to  help.
Thomas called on Fiscal Court last week to allot $1 million toward the plan in reserve funds. Mindful perhaps of less than glowing fiscal prospects, magistrates sat silent. Judge-Executive Ted Collins suggested there may be some way to accommodate project planners while stressing, “we’re not saying yes, we’re not saying no.”
The state  budget squeeze makes a major commitment from state government seem improbable. Legislators  cut Gov. Steve Beshear’s proposed $1 billion limit on new debt to $400 million. Neither state workers nor retirees can expect raises in the 2012-2014 biennium.
Thomas said Frankfort Rep. Derrick Graham supported the project but The State Journal’s Lauren Hallow found neither Graham nor state Sen. Julian Carroll had ever heard of SPF.  Although Carroll said he liked the idea – especially if the center were built downtown close to state offices – he knows of no available funds.
Some of the project details also raise concerns. SPF says it would coordinate its plans with the Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Department and the Frankfort YMCA to address the obsolescence of existing sports facilities. The city’s lone swimming pool at Juniper Hill Park is certainly showing its age, but Frankfort offers abundant recreational opportunities. Capitol View Park has soccer and softball fields, a youth football field and two basketball courts. Dolly Graham Park in South Frankfort has two basketball courts and a volleyball court. Juniper Hill, besides its pool, has volleyball courts, a baseball field and an 18-hole golf course. Lakeview Park, owned by the county and jointly maintained with the city, adds softball and soccer fields, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and a nine-hole course course. (These are only partial listings of parks’ attractions.)
Maybe a new recreation center could fill a void during inclement weather with its indoor features: swimming, basketball, volleyball, archery, tennis and soccer. But what becomes of the park system’s existing outdoor facilities? Would the new development supplant them or merely supplement them?
SPF intimates that mediocre recreational opportunities contribute to Franklin County’s sluggish growth (Frankfort’s population actually declined in 2000-2010), but we’re not convinced. Franklin is more populous than any of six continguous counties, although Scott is gaining fast. Shelby and Woodford counties, within the orbits of the Jefferson and Fayette County metropolitan areas, have long enjoyed robust economies. Perhaps it’s their prosperity that  contributes to recreational development rather the other way around.
This is not to dismiss Swim Play Frankfort out of hand. Local residents should listen to new ideas with an open mind, but balance the benefits against the cost of expansion. As with shopping for a new car or any other big-ticket item, it’s best not to let emotions take over. With Frankfort’s biggest employer keeping income stagnant, this community should think long and hard before jumping into a $25 million obligation to keep up with the Joneses.

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