Please do not close the Austin Recreation Center (1301 Shoal Creek, 78701), as proposed in the current draft budget. I have personally attended Jazzercise classes there for over 28 years and there are many others who have done the same. Children rely on its summer and after-school programs and it also houses a popular adult volleyball league. This wonderful centrally-located center is used by many, yet has so much more potential for usage and revenue.
The Austin community values fitness, and we value good after school and summer activities and care for our children. Why would we close one of our premier facilities in the central city where we are bringing thousands more citizens to live and work?
It appears the center has been targeted for closure because the City recently decided that the subsidy to this facility offers a convenient budget cut! Recently, the City decided that a private entity should be found to operate this rec center in order to cut the city's $230,000 difference between costs and revenue! Since no private entity has been found to agree to the terms of the deal (one entity that was approached said it's simply not a realistic business plan), staff is preparing letters to folks saying the Rec Center will close on October 1st of this year!
The idea to cut PARD's budget by leasing ARC does not work and now staff is saying ARC will simply close. Has staff ever been directed to look at "losses" in running city rec centers? Have they structured fees to cover costs? Have efficiencies been sought? These concepts seem to be new to staff and I do not feel it is wise to simply start closing facilities before the broader picture is considered. Whether Rec Centers (or any other public buildings) will continue to be subsidized is an interesting question but not a question that currently has answers. If some buildings are expected to break even, they may require managers with a different skill set than the ones currently in place.
CONSIDERATIONS: Having talked to staff, I have learned several relevant facts about the Austin Rec Center situation that clearly underscore the false economy of shuttering this building on October 1st:
1. PARD is undertaking a fee analysis to determine where losses are occurring and opportunities for increases may exist. This analysis will be completed in January in time to apply its findings in the NEXT budget; it would be hugely premature to close this or any facility before the review is complete. ACC is one of the major users of the Austin Rec Center and it is quite possible that a fee adjustment for this entity (which does not pay city taxes) would improve the center's financial efficiency. It makes sense to look for efficiencies across the board, but to close a fully used facility on a whim seems a bad policy choice.
2. Last year Austin Recreation Center (now about 25 years old) received an energy audit, a new roof, new HVAC systems and other energy saving retrofits. This work has not even gone through one cycle to determine what savings are being realized so the center's current and future operating costs could be far lower than in the past.
3. The City is overlooking additional potential income from the facility. For example, last year ARC management decided that lockers, long rented to Jazzercise students, could no longer be rented because the fees were not in the city budget and there was a fear that contraband might be left in them. So these city lockers now stand vacant while our Jazzercise instructor obtained new private lockers for our use. If the goal is to make the center self-sustaining, this is not sensible fiscal management.
The Jazzercise students, users of the weight room and other class attendees include many city, state and AISD employees who attend at their lunch hour or just after work, as well as other central city residents, ACC students and visitors to the city who are staying downtown. Closing this facility will certainly impact fitness especially for those of us who cannot exercise outdoors and in the sun during Austin's many months of prohibitively high temperatures.
Please look at the facts and adjust your fees accordingly before you close a great, centrally located facility. Please also bear in mind that even "mothballing" a building for a year has its own risks and expenses. Once the users are all sent to seek other venues, if it is later determined to reopen the center, promotional expenses will be required to seek new programs and users as well as new staff.
I love Austin and have spent much of my life fostering its well-being, but I am very distressed this year as the City puts our pools on the block, AISD offers Baker School for sale, and now the City considers closing the ARC - and on top of this, my taxes and those of my neighbors will go up again. Meanwhile, owners of commercial apartment buildings in my neighborhood continue to pay substantially lower taxes than Austin homeowners. The City also continues to vastly undercharge on development fees.
I urge you to expect efficiency in the operation of city facilities, but the closure of Austin Recreation Center in just weeks is wrong.
As responsible stewards of our City, I implore you to address Austin's skewed fee structure immediately and to direct your appointees to TCAD to address the glaring tax inequities between commercial residential property and owner-occupied homes. If the City's only answer is to continue to cut city services for residents while giving fee and tax breaks to developers, you can bet I will be very grumpy! and I might not be the only one!
Thank you for your time and attention.