Several Montpelier city councilors met a consultant’s report about building a recreation center that could cost between $44 and $50 million (depending on if it has a swimming pool) with skepticism, and a suggestion by city officials to consider a smaller center instead.
“The facility doesn’t have to be this big, but we figured let’s start with a dream, then we can shrink it down,” said Recreation Director Arne McMullen during the Nov. 8 council meeting. He said he wanted to keep features like two to three basketball courts and an indoor walking track in any smaller center.
City Manager Bill Fraser said the report provided information that could be useful in considering a scaled-back recreation center plan and means “we can now have a more intelligent conversation.”
Councilor Tim Heney had a different view. “I can’t believe we had a consultant do this study,” he said. “A decision has not been made to build a new rec center, or where it would be built.”
The report was prepared by Ballard and King, a Colorado firm that has consulted on recreation center projects across the country, and cost the city $14,500, part of a bigger contract the firm had with the city that included research and a survey conducted before the pandemic. The total amount paid to Ballard and King was just under $42,000, according to McMullen.
With or Without a Pool?
The report examined the costs of operating either an 88,500-square-foot recreation center or a 101,500-square-foot center that would include a pool. The smaller center would include a large hard-surface gym area, a fitness studio, a weight/cardio space, a large turf area, a child watch room, a youth/teen center, a community area, offices, and locker rooms. The larger option would also include a pool with water slide, water play structures, a “lazy river,” a “vortex” pool, and a hydrotherapy pool, according to the report.
The firm’s Ken Ballard, speaking on Zoom, said his report focused on the operational costs that the city might encounter if a new center opened in 2026, but did not include the cost of paying interest on any bonds for construction.
He said the firm used conservative figures and calculated that, not counting any bond interest, the center without a pool would nearly break even, but a center with a pool would lose about $400,000 a year. The center without a pool would require hiring 14.2 full-time-equivalent employees, while the pool version would require 30 full-time-equivalent employees, including lifeguards.
Ballard said a large recreation center could draw from about 53,000 people in an area stretching from Waterbury to Cabot and from Williamstown to Waitsfield. He estimated the annual fee for Montpelier residents to use the center without a pool would be $450 for an adult and $700 for a family. With a pool, the annual fees could be $600 and $900, respectively. Nonresidents would pay about 50% more.
Ballard said the city did not ask him to estimate the cost of building, but City Councilor Sal Alfano said that Colchester recently paid about $540 per square foot for a new, smaller recreation center. “If we use $500 per square foot, that would mean a cost of $44 million for the smaller option and $50 million with a pool,” he said. “That seems completely out of the question.”
Councilor Cary Brown questioned Ballard’s assumption that the facility could actually gain revenues from 12 flag football teams, 12 soccer teams, 12 basketball teams, and 12 volleyball teams.
“I can’t swear you will have 12 flag football teams, it could be more or less,” Ballard responded. “It is an estimate, but our firm has done hundreds of studies like this.”
Councilor Dona Bate was more upbeat. “I really appreciate the data and statistics and experience that went into this. It will be a good resource going forward.”
In a comment earlier in the meeting, before the Ballard report discussion, Recreation Board member Chris Hancock touted the benefits of recreation to the community, and said he hoped the council would “keep recreation in mind as a significant, important value for our town, even in these difficult times.”
Montpelier resident Steve Sease commented that the plans were “completely unrealistic to consider” at a time when the city is facing “daunting” financial challenges. “This is not a productive area for the city to be spending its time and limited resources on, even on the level of discussion,” he said.
Near the end of the meeting, Mayor Jack McCullough said, “I don’t see the support for this,” apparently referring to the large center discussed in the report, and asked what the next steps might be.
Public Input Sessions Planned
The city will be holding public input sessions and conducting a survey this winter to gather public feedback regarding a new recreation center, according to a memo to councilors from Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy and McMullen. The feedback will help the Council “make an informed decision to select a vision for Recreation at Country Club Road,” the memo said.
At the meeting, however, Fraser said the location of a new recreation center has not been decided, although he acknowledged that recreation, along with housing, was one of the reasons for buying the Country Club Road property, and that recreation funds had helped pay for its purchase. Fraser raised the possibility of asking neighboring towns to help build a regional recreation facility in Montpelier, in which case the Country Club Road location would make sense, he said.
An earlier Montpelier recreation survey in 2019, conducted by Ballard and King for $13,000, asked respondents about the existing rec building and what they would like to see if a new center is built. The construction cost for a new recreation center at that time was estimated at more than $20 million.
Seventy-seven percent rated an indoor pool as a needed component, trailing a gymnasium (84%), multipurpose rooms (82%), and group exercise/dance rooms (82%). However, asked whether they would be willing to pay $200–$350 a year in additional property taxes for such a facility, only 25% answered yes.
“The amount of money that people were asked about was not even half of what it would cost to build and operate a pool,” then-Mayor Anne Watson said in 2019. “And while that would be nice, it’s probably outside the will of the people to take on.”
The Competitive Landscape
Nick Petterssen, co-owner of Green Mountain Community Fitness (GMCF) in Berlin, told The Bridge he was surprised the Ballard and King report did not discuss “how it would fit with the competitive landscape.”
Green Mountain Community Fitness operates a 49,000-square-foot recreation facility in Berlin, including a pool, while Planet Fitness has a large fitness facility, also in Berlin, and several other smaller studios in the area offer exercise equipment, spinner bikes, or yoga.
Petterssen said he is a “huge proponent of expanding physical activity opportunities in central Vermont,” but suggested that any new facility should focus on services not currently offered so “we don’t end up fighting for the same piece of the fitness pie.”
One service he said is lacking is an indoor field house with turf. “We get requests for that all the time, but that is something we do not offer,” he said. “I can see a facility like that serving central Vermont, though I am not sure if it is appropriate for a municipality to build and operate.”
Pettersen said he thinks there may be room for another pool in the area. The pool at GMCF, which is open to members and the public, “is very, very busy in the winter,” he said. But he also said operating a pool is “wicked expensive.”
Other indoor pools in the area include the Best Western motel in Waterbury, which offers monthly passes only, and The Swimming Hole in Stowe, which offers both passes and day tickets.
A facility that offered group activities and space for meetings and social clubs might be feasible, Petterson said, adding “If it was walkable, that would be good.”
Staffing a recreation facility can be challenging, Petterssen said. “Is the talent pool large enough to have two large facilities here?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer to that.” He said the fees in the Ballard and King report “may be on the low side.”
He also noted that in Vermont many people want indoor recreation opportunities six months a year, but the other half of the year, Vermonters “want to be outside.” This makes it a challenge to have a recreation facility work financially, Petterssen said.