Fairbanks Assembly delays Mary Siah Rec Center demolition to conduct more tests on building

Members of Friends of Mary Siah and others gather at the intersection of Illinois and Terminal streets near the borough administration building to protest Mayor Karl Kassel’s proposal to demolish the recreation center. (Photo by Tim Ellis/ KUAC)

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly decided Monday to delay a plan to demolish the Mary Siah Recreation Center, proposed by Mayor Karl Kassel. Assembly members instead approved a measure that keeps the popular but aging rec center operating – if it passes engineering tests to be conducted over the next month.

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The Assembly picked up Monday where it left off Thursday, after a marathon public hearing on Kassel’s proposed ordinance to demolish the Mary Siah Rec Center as part of a package of projects intended to help the borough begin to catch up on long-deferred facilities maintenance.

Lance Roberts offered an amended version of the mayor’s ordinance that would keep the rec center open and appropriate more than $682,000 to repair it.

“I don’t think taking down buildings that really don’t have that long a lifespan in the overall scheme of the things is the right way to go about it,” Roberts said.

Roberts said his ordinance would keep Mary Siah open for a few years, unless problems arose due to the serious structural issues that borough staff and consultants have pointed out.

“The Assembly should definitely say at this point that we want to keep the Mary Siah open,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he doesn’t believe the borough should knock down the rec center until it has another facility to replace it. Kassel has proposed a $35 million aquatics center that would be paid for with bonds. But Roberts says he’s reluctant to go along with that, because it would add to property taxes. He adds that borough voters may not approve the bond issue, given the state’s fiscal woes. He says the solution is to cut services and keep the borough’s budget lean.

“We are going to need to dig deeper and do some more budget-cutting,” Roberts said, “but everyone on this Assembly knows I’m willing to help with that.”

The Assembly defeated Roberts’ ordinance, 7-to-1, with only him voting to support. Christopher Quist was absent.

The Assembly then took up Kassel’s ordinance. The mayor told Assembly members he hopes they’ll place a bond measure on the fall local-election ballot and that voters approve them. But he says he’s not counting on that; he says he’s proposed to close Mary Siah because the borough doesn’t have the money to repair, maintain and operate it.

“My point is, regardless of the vote up or down on the bond, the building still needs to come down ASAP,” Kassel said. “Or, get multi millions of dollars of repair work into it for the next several years.”

The mayor emphasized several times that his proposals are part of a carefully crafted 10-year plan to catch up on the borough’s maintenance backlog. He said proposed amendments to his ordinance could disrupt that plan, and he says he’d welcome suggestions on which other facilities the borough should close or demolish, and how it can pay for that. After more back-and-forth, Aaron Lojewski suggested Kassel was trying to stifle dissent to his plan.

“It sounds like you’re trying to find another way to close the Mary Siah if you don’t get your way tonight,” Lojewski said.

Many of the 30 or so people who turned out for the meeting murmured their agreement with Lojewski’s charge. But Kassel, a former borough parks and rec director, was clearly irritated.

“It’s ridiculous to say that I am trying to target this facility because I don’t like it for some reason,” Kassel said. “That’s insanity! This pains me. I’m very emotional about this. I love our parks and rec facilities.”

Other Assembly members, like Angela Major, also said they felt pressured by the mayor’s pitch.

“It just kind of seems like well, we’ve already taken money out of the operating budget for next year,” Major said. “And the more we talk about this the more it just kind of seems like you guys don’t have any options than this one.”

The Assembly finally approved an amendment proposed by Matt Cooper that would allow the $682,000 Kassel proposed to use to demolish the rec center to instead be available for repair or maintenance. Cooper urged Kassel to complete engineering tests on the structure as quickly as possible and send results to the Assembly. Kassel said he expects that could be done in four to five weeks.

The Assembly then approved a resolution supporting Kassel’s maintenance plan and his proposal to ask voters to approve selling bonds to raise $77 million to pay for it, including the aquatics center to replace Mary Siah and the Hamme Pool. Lojewski and Roberts voted no on the measure.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.