Education

Partners push to keep momentum on stalled Meridian school-YMCA-library project

Correction : An earlier version of this story reported the school-YMCA-library-pool-park project would cost about $100 million. That number is incorrect. The amount would be about $50 million.

Marti Hill and his wife, Dixie Cook, wanted to leave a legacy honoring his family, which had homesteaded and farmed on property near Eagle and Amity roads beginning 124 years ago.

What began as Hill’s vision in 2004 for a Meridian city park morphed into an idea for a complex occupied by a Treasure Valley YMCA, an elementary school, a library, a pool and a health center on 15 acres donated by Hill and another seven acres from Brighton Corp., a builder and developer.

The estimated cost of the project — without the health center, which is still in the talking stages — is about $50 million.

“What the Y does is just incredible for these kids,” Hill said. “I’m excited for seeing the Y over there, seeing the park where ... families are walking and rollerblading around the park. It is just going to be a blessing.”

With the YMCA, West Ada School District, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department committed to the project, the partners announced it in November 2014, with a $4 million donation to the YMCA from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

Bringing together so many amenities, child-centered learning and health care practically under one roof was called “transformative” at the news conference.

A year later, though, the Meridian project has been dented by reality:

▪  The YMCA has raised $8 million, including the Albertson gift, of the $20 million it needs for the building. It needs at least $17 million before going to the YMCA board to get permission to start moving dirt, said David Duro, who became CEO of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA in November.

▪  The Meridian Library District, which hoped to build a 20,000-square-foot building as part of the project, lost the vote for a $12 million bond in November that would have paid for construction of a library at the YMCA complex, as well as a second in north Meridian.

▪  The Western Ada Recreation District withdrew from the ballot a proposed $16 million bond measure, to pay for a pool at the YMCA complex and another near Chinden Boulevard and Black Cat Road. The district feared it couldn’t get enough information to voters to have a good chance of passing the measure.

▪  The West Ada School District’s plans for a new school — which is under construction and to open in fall — were sharply criticized by some district taxpayers and trustees for increased costs, some of which were driven by the project.

▪  Different parts of the project depend on other parts. The city of Meridian, for example, doesn’t want to move ahead with its 10-acre park until the YMCA starts its piece of the project.

WORKING TOGETHER, SAVING DOLLARS

The project is far from defeated, its backers say.

Such partnerships aren’t new. The YMCA and the city of Boise collaborated on the West YMCA on West Discovery Way near Hewlett-Packard in the mid-1990s; the Y built its facility and the city paid for the indoor pool.

The Meridian project is more complex than that, bringing together many different entities. The partners are drawn by the huge growth in Meridian south of Interstate 84, where the explosion of families is leading the West Ada district to build two new schools: Victory Middle on Stoddard Road and Hillsdale Elementary at the multipurpose project site.

The partnership is supposed to be more than different entities just building their own shops near one another and sharing parking lots. Plans call for all the groups to explore ways to work together.

“We want to be where the children are,” said Jim Everett, former Treasure Valley YMCA CEO, who is helping with the Meridian plans.

The project might be a unique partnership for the YMCA in the country, Everett said. It would allow different groups to share infrastructure costs, such as road construction, electrical hookups, water, sewer and parking.

“If it doesn’t save dollars, shame on us,” Everett said

Hillsdale Elementary School plans to use the YMCA’s gym and the children’s library. With students close by, swimming instruction would fit more easily into the school schedule.

And kids coming to the Y would be just steps from the library, where they could go for activities or check out a book.

And adults would benefit, said Gretchen Caserotti, library district director: “You can borrow an e-book while you are on the (Y’s) treadmill,” she said.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Everett acknowledges that he tried to move the project along quickly. When the Western Ada Recreation District came on board with a pool plan last summer, Everett and others hoped for a bond vote in November. That idea was withdrawn when everyone realized that the public had not had an opportunity to grasp what it would be voting on, Everett said.

The Albertson Foundation calls the Meridian project “a perfect fit for what we value” — developing and exploring limitless learning. The foundation is bringing in an organization called Cannon Design to help the partners work out their own vision for the site.

Cannon would work as an objective facilitator trying to learn what each group brings to the table, foundation Director Roger Quarels said. “It clarifies roles and responsibilities. It clarifies commitments — not only in relationship for project development, but what does it actually provides to the end user,” he said.

Yet each partner faces its own challenge.

▪  Meridian Library District

The library has tried three time since 2006 to persuade voters to construct new libraries. In November, 59 percent of those who voted favored the project, almost 7 percent shy of the two-thirds majority required.

Library officials are still sifting through the numbers, trying to determine what to do next. No date is set on when the library district might come back to voters for another bond, said Caserotti. Conversations with voters revealed many didn’t know about the two-thirds majority required for passage of a construction bond and thought the library had won the vote.

Meanwhile, the district is paying nearly $100,000 a year to rent a 4,500-square-foot library at 3531 East Overland Road to provide service to southern Meridian.

▪  Western Ada Recreation District

The district operates one outdoor pool built in the 1970s that is jammed with kids during the summer. After pulling the bond issue, in part at the YMCA’s request, the board has not put the proposal for another bond back on the district’s agenda, said Charlie Rountree, board president and president of the Meridian City Council. He doesn’t know when board members will take it up again.

Educating voters about the need for a pool and the advantages of the partnership will take time, Rountree said. “We really have not explained that issue at this point,” he said. “I know it has been a struggle so far.”

▪  YMCA

Fundraising for a South Meridian YMCA has not gone as quickly as Everett had hoped. When the project was announced in fall 2014, the Y hoped to have a building in place by spring 2016. If the Y can raise 85 percent of its project cost, it could begin construction on the 99,000-square-foot facility.

▪  City Park

Meridian Parks and Recreation has $1.4 million budgeted to build a park estimated at seven to 10 acres. The park would have a playground, sports fields and picnic shelters. But the city is waiting for the YMCA to start its piece of the project, said Steve Siddoway, parks and recreation director, because the YMCA complex could influence the size and shape of the park.

▪  Hillsdale Elementary

West Ada School District joined the project, seeing benefits of using YMCA and library facilities as in other YMCA collaborations. But with elementary students crunched at nearby Mary McPherson and Siena elementaries, West Ada couldn’t wait for its partners before it built a new school on property donated by Brighton.

Then West Ada discovered that it would have to build a road and put in sewer, water and electrical hookups, as well as streetlights, to build the school. Those costs were discovered after siting the school, which added $1.2 million to an overall cost initially estimated at $10 million.

Critics and some trustees where sharply critical of the unexpected cost and complained of a nearly 40 percent cost overrun. The district also faced other costs, such as having to build the two-story structure out of steel and concrete because it would have tied into the YMCA building, which was using those materials. A project with a preliminary estimate of $10 million now looks to cost about $15 million.

Unexpected costs are not unusual in building a school, district officials say. They point out that the district saved money on the Meridian High School remodel and Victory Middle School construction and kept total cost of all construction within the $96 million voters approved in a bond last March.

Costs for the road and other infrastructure were intended to be shared by the YMCA, library and the school district. If the other partners do finally participate in the Meridian project, they will reimburse the money the district fronted, reducing West Ada’s extra costs to about $750,000.

“We are trying to honor our commitment,” said Duro, the new YMCA CEO.

In the meantime, the district has designed its cafeteria to serve as a gym until the YMCA builds its complex and provides space for Hillsdale Elementary to use.

Two other rooms will serve as a library until the library bond can be passed.

Despite all the problems, the project’s original visionary is optimistic.

It might sound corny, said Marti Hill, but for more than a century the Hill family raised crops on the farm property where a school, YMCA and library are expected to take shape.

“Now,” he said, “we are going to be raising kids.”

Bill Roberts is the Statesman’s longtime education reporter. 208-377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts

  Comments