Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 2:55 PM on Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Old school building may have bright future

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

A combination of deadlines and possibilities could lead to the city of Homer and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula remodeling the old Homer Intermediate School and providing a permanent home for two educational and recreational programs, Community Recreation and the Homer Boys & Girls Club.

At a Homer City Council work session on Monday, the council listened to citizens urging support for repurposing the old building the city inherited from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, now called the Homer Education and Recreation Complex, or HERC.

In a memo to the council, City Manager Walt Wrede noted two reasons driving the work session:

• A looming deadline of June 30 for the city's contract with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to use local schools for Community Recreation programs; and

• A lease expiration date of May 31 for the Homer Boys & Girls Club to use the downstairs and gym of the HERC.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula sent the city council a letter on April 20 saying it wanted a long term lease.

In return, "The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula would like to work as a partner with the city of Homer to pursue substantial renovations on the existing building," executive director Natasha Ala and board president Mike Navarre wrote. "We earnestly believe that as a partner in a capital campaign, our organization could assist in securing grants, foundation funding and government funding to pay for this capital campaign."

Community Recreation Director Mike Illg also presented a report outlining how recreational and educational programs could use the HERC and how increased fees from more programs could pay for it. Illg said that because school programs have priority at Homer High School and other facilities, Community Recreation classes either have been bumped or pushed to later times. This spring, six or seven programs got displaced, including a toddler wrestling program. If Community Recreation shared the HERC, it would work with the Boys & Girls Club on coordinating space.

Illg also proposed leasing out the HERC to nonprofits, even businesses. One group, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, already has presented a proposal to lease about 500-square-feet of HERC space this summer for its Washed Ashore project, an art and environmental project to make sculptures out of marine debris.

Mayor James Hornaday raised the issue of how Community Recreation programs would be supervised in the HERC. He said he'd heard of problems with drug activity at the skateboard park at the HERC.

Illg said Community Recreation has 115 volunteers and contract instructors.

"We certainly have the commitment from the community to help this program," he said. "If there's more people (at the HERC), I'm envisioning it would deter negative behavior."

Council members Beth Wythe and Francie Roberts questioned Illg's financial projections, although Roberts said she supported the idea. The already stressed general fund budget doesn't have extra money to fund remodeling, they noted.

"I really appreciate your thinking here," council member Barbara Howard said to Illg and in response to the other council members. "I like your idea of partnership ... I don't know of any better way to spend general fund money than this."

At a public comment period at the work session, several sports and recreation boosters spoke in favor of moving ahead in remodeling the HERC.

"I've always supported the repurposing of that building because I'm a duct tape kind of gal," said Roberta Highland.

Basketball coaches Deb Lowney and Merlin Cordes spoke of the excitement last week from a tournament at the HERC with 50 youth athletes and 100 fans.

"The best part was sitting in the bleachers and listening to people talking about playing in that gym and now their grandchildren are playing in that gym," Lowney said.

"Get that gym open, get it going, get it used more," Cordes said. "That facility is there. Let's fix it up and use it. The more we can keep kids using things of this nature — if we can keep one or two kids away from drugs, we've done our job."

The council expressed general support for looking at remodeling the HERC.

"This sounds great and I have no problems with it," Council member David Lewis said.

"I think it's a great idea and I would support the city moving ahead with this," Howard said.

"I think this building is valuable," Roberts aid. "If we could make it a recreation center, that's the way to go."

"More places to play basketball — I'm all for that," Hornaday said.

The next step would be for the council to consider a resolution backing the idea of remodeling the HERC, putting Community Recreation in it and working with the Boys & Girls Clubs in a partnership to remodel it. Wrede said he would prepare such a resolution for a future council meeting.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.