Unfreezing Assets

By Natalie Eggeman

Parks and recreation departments rarely have a problem envisioning spectacular recreation facilities and programs. The issue is finding enough funding to construct and sustain their plans. The city of Fort Wayne, Ind., happens to be in the enviable position of capitalizing on the proceeds from the sale of City Light Utility to Indiana Michigan Power. Mayor Tom Henry, city council, and the community have mandated that these Legacy Fort Wayne Funds be used in “transformational projects” for the city.

In 2010, before the funds became available, a strategic decision was made to privatize the existing parks and recreation ice business and seek private investment that would yield a new facility. Canlan Ice Sports, a state-of-the-art rink with three sheets of ice, was built in the retail sector of the city. With the new strategy satisfied, the McMillen Ice Arena located in McMillen Park—once a thriving facility for figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey, sled hockey, and open skating—had become a mostly unused 83,000-square-foot facility. The future of the building had to be addressed—functioning as an ice arena was no longer possible. Renovate or rebuild or demolish—that was the question.

“Building a complex like the former ice arena from the ground up would likely top $8 [million] to $10 million,” says Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation Director Al Moll. Renovating the facility was the best option, but what type of project would “transform” the southeast side of town and also engage the community? The leisure-services staff members knew what they wanted—a community center like the one the department ran downtown, but bigger and better. Because such a massive building would need major public support to keep it operational, it was essential to ask the community what it wanted.

Rallying The Troops
Public input meetings were held in the empty ice arena to give residents an opportunity to remember the size and layout of the original facility. The first session drew neighborhood association and church leaders. These individuals were the movers and shakers who could spread the word about future sessions, and who could garner support for the project. The second session consisted of youth only—about 50 middle school and high school students—to ensure they had a voice in the decision. The final two sessions were open to the community. Input was also gathered through social-media platforms.

After a brief introduction and assurance that all ideas would be considered, participants in each session verbally brainstormed what they thought the city needed in the McMillen building. City officials scribbled their suggestions on large easel pads. When each group had voiced its opinions, participants were given three stickers to mark their favorites. The majority of requests involved sports, wellness, education, and the arts, including indoor stadiums for baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and volleyball, and a movie theatre, rock-climbing wall, art museum, walking track, playground, and enrichment mall that would include a career center. Ninety-eight different options were proposed, with no particular favorite. It was becoming clear that the Leisure Services Department would get its wish—a multipurpose community center.

Round Two
The department worked with an architectural firm to create a conceptual drawing, with the goal of incorporating most of the ideas the community had suggested for the renovation. In fact, 82 of the 98 activities suggested were addressed in the plans. When the drawings were complete, another public meeting was held to unveil the proposal. Surprisingly, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Now it was time to officially request Legacy Funds to start the renovation. The entire project was expected to cost $4.5 million, but only about half of that amount would be needed to turn what had become a park eyesore into a supervised facility that would have a positive impact on the neighborhood. The parks and recreation leadership team traveled throughout the city to present the concept, answer questions, and get neighborhood and business groups as excited as the team was. That personal touch, putting the parks and recreation face on the future development, produced numerous collaborations with the public and private sectors, resulting in rapid approval of $2 million of legacy funding for the first phase of construction, discounts from the chosen builder, and free IT help. One of the best outcomes of winning community-wide support was the ease in raising $225,000 for the indoor playground that had been hugely anticipated, but deemed too expensive for the first phase. The playground will be installed in the fall—much earlier than expected.

“Not only was the skating arena renovated, the entire park has become revitalized,” says Bennie Lewis, Manager of Neighborhood Programs. On average, 400 children use McMillen Park Community Center daily, the number of patrons in the park has doubled, and the number of hours of park supervision has also expanded until 9:00 each night. In the past, when the McMillen Pool closed at 7 p.m. in the summer, supervision in the park for the evening ended too, which increased the risk for vandalism.

As the seasons change and the weather cools, even more people, young and old, are expected to utilize the indoor facility as early as 6 a.m., for the regular $1 drop-in fee. “This facility isn’t just for our youth program,” says Perry Ehresman, Deputy Director of Leisure Services. “It’s a full-service community center with multigenerational programming that addresses the recreational, educational, social, and health and fitness needs of the community.” Opportunities are available for those who want open recreation as well as for those who want to rent space for sports leagues, tournaments and events, classes, concerts, wedding receptions, family reunions, corporate outings, and more. The cost to play or rent is reasonable, and a fee-based revenue model is absolutely essential to help subsidize staff and maintenance.

However, the renovation project had one major glitch. Two months before the grand opening, a squirrel snuck into the electrical system and caused a power surge that fried the new HVAC and damaged part of the boiler system, causing $300,000 damage and led to a real fear that a new system couldn’t be installed in time to obtain all of the necessary permits so the building could be opened to the public on June 7. Once again, the community rallied, and the local insurance company sent an adjustor immediately, which preserved the grand opening as scheduled. Surge protectors have been added inside the facility, and squirrel protection has been installed on the utility poles to prevent future surge issues.

Looking Ahead
The community-center staff will continue to work with other groups to design and implement more activities, such as health screenings in the wellness mall, movie night, soccer, and flag football. There’s also a plan to expand the basketball and volleyball programs.

“A lesson for all of us is that when you listen and use the input of the community, obtain support of both your elected officials and local business, have a talented group of employees, any dream can be realized, and a legacy can be delivered,” Moll says.

Natalie Eggeman is the Public Information Officer for the Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation Department in Indiana. Reach her at natalie.eggeman@cityoffortwayne.org.