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A challenging split 

Woodland Park residents take sides on whether to raise taxes to fund a YMCA recreation center

Woodland Park has a hospital, a Wal-Mart, several fast-food places and some quaint hometown shops. But don't bring your swimsuit. This city of 6,500 people doesn't have a pool.

Roughly 1,000 residents want to change that, having signed petitions to put a 1-percent sales tax hike onto the April 6 ballot to build a $15 million YMCA. It'd have not only a pool, but also a fitness center, climbing wall, gym, running track and racquetball court. If approved, the project — which will rack up another $10.9 million in borrowing costs — would be the biggest public project in Woodland Park's history.

"It's a tremendous amenity for economic development," says Swiss Chalet restaurant owner Neil Levy, who headed the signature-gathering. "If you ask 10 kids up here, they will tell you there's nothing to do."

But not everyone believes the city should lock itself into paying for a recreation center while the recession saps tax revenues and business vitality. Asks Mayor Steve Randolph, who opposes the tax: "How much of a burden can we place on our residents?"

High and dry

Many of those residents have pined for a swimming pool for decades, Randolph acknowledges, and proposals have come and gone. Most recently, former City Manager Mark Fitzgerald all but promised that the windfall sales tax revenue from Wal-Mart, which opened in 2007, would fund a rec center with a pool. But last July, City Council voted down the idea 5-2, triggering Levy's petition drive.

"We thought it was important that people have the right to vote on this issue," Levy says.

Levy's proposal calls for the city to increase its 3-percent sales tax to 4 percent for 20 years to fund the facility. Between 40,000 and 45,000 square feet, it would sit on city-owned land next to City Hall, on West South Avenue.

The YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region would lease it for $1 a year and run it with dues of up to $80 a month for families, with a sliding scale for those who can't afford the full freight. The Y hopes to sell up to 5,000 memberships, as well as day passes for about $5 each, and to employ up to 105 part-time and 15 full-time workers.

Levy notes that in moving the proposal along through the years, the city already has invested more than $750,000 in design and other costs. And, he says, a recession is the perfect time to get the best deals from hungry contractors.

"If we didn't build it from 2002 to 2007 in our best economy, and that wasn't the right time," he asks, "when is the right time?"

Certainly not when people are cutting discretionary spending, Mary Nein says. Nein runs Woodland Fitness Center, which she fears will lose members to a new government-subsidized competitor. She says her fitness center has about 800 members.

"We're nowhere close to being where we need to be, and the YMCA thought they would draw 3,000 to 4,000 members?" she asks. "That's just not going to happen."

Like many of her members, she lives outside the city limits and thus can't vote.

"All the people who can't vote on it said if the sales tax goes up, they'll do all their shopping in Colorado Springs as a protest," Nein says. "All the local vendors will be punished. Times are tough, and a lot of people are shopping in Colorado Springs anyway, because Colorado Springs doesn't charge sales tax on food."

For years, Woodland Park has levied a 3-percent sales tax on groceries, a tax that Randolph says is essential to the city but that residents periodically threaten to repeal.

Costly extras

Randolph admits a rec center would be a "tremendous asset" to Woodland Park, where his family dates back six generations. But he's afraid the new tax would preclude future tax hikes for such essentials as streets, police and parks.

"If it passes, our hands are tied for 20 years," Randolph says. "We've got potholes we can't fill. We have a hockey rink that needs a roof and ice-making system. We can't pay for them."

If membership numbers don't pan out, he worries the center could wind up in the city's lap. Plus, some "over the top" costs — for instance, $459,600 for "water toys," $412,067 for a water slide and $252,000 for a whirlpool — don't sit right with him.

In recent years, Woodland Park has lost 700 water customers, 600 schoolkids and 20 percent of its business licenses, Randolph says. He adds that through Nov. 29, tax revenues for 2009 had declined by 2.9 percent after historically increasing by 4 percent per year. Moreover, the Wal-Mart windfall turned out to be half the $1.6 million a year an economist predicted.

The next step comes Feb. 18, when Woodland Park City Council will decide whether to place the tax measure before voters. Randolph, acknowledging that petitioners represent a majority of the normal city voter turnout, says it's still not a sure thing. While City Clerk Cindy Morse ruled petitions contained "more than the required number of signatures," the mayor says petitioning was "sloppy" and some signatures should be disqualified.

For pros and cons of the project, visit wp-ynot.org and wpyyes.com.

zubeck@csindy.com

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