The assembly approved a new business model for the Carlson Center, which would open as a community center as soon as this fall, depending on the borough’s operational status for Covid-19. Drop-in fees would be $4 for children and $6 for adults.
The vote on Saturday to expand services at the Interior’s largest indoor arena was 5-4 with supporters looking to make the facility, which often sits idle even in normal times, more accessible and useful to residents.
New offerings under the Carlson Center reboot include indoor sports, an indoor play area, movie nights, food truck rallies, birthday parties and craft classes.
Bringing the Carlson Center under Fairbanks North Star Borough management and expanding services is the biggest change proposed in the mayor’s $174.3 million budget for fiscal year 2021-2022. A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for May 6, and the assembly is expected to make a final vote May 13.
Opponents of the new plan for the Carlson Center worried about the price tag. The expansion of services will cost an extra $150,000-$200,000 and involves adding six new parks and recreation department employees to the borough payroll.
This comes at a time when the borough has scaled back many services, including parks and recreation, citing safety concerns due to Covid-19.
“This is now going to cost the borough taxpayers more money than it ever has,” said Assemblyman Jimi Cash, who voted no.
Also voting no on the Carlson Center plan were Assembly members Frank Tomaszewski, Aaron Lojewski and Tammie Wilson.
“I view this as an expansion on borough employees and more subsidies,” Tomaszewski said. “It’s going to further grow and cost more each year.”
Assemblywoman Liz Lyke, who voted in favor of the reboot, responded, “I don’t really look at it as a subsidy. I look at it as doing more for our neighbors and friends in the community.”
She was joined by members Leah Berman Williams, Marna Sanford, Mindy O’Neall and Matt Cooper in voting in favor.
Borough Mayor Bryce Ward told the assembly that their other choices were to close the center or mothball it and wait a year to look for a contractor to operate it.
“That puts us in a better environment for a bid,” Ward said.
A few assembly members said last year that they would be open to selling the facility but that idea did not come up at the finance committee meeting on Saturday.
The current contract for managing the facility expires June 30. The center is a hub for concerts, conventions and trade shows—which officials said will continue—but has been serving as a medical site. Last April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered the borough to make the Carlson Center available for the Covid-19 response.
Some of the debate about the future of the center focused on how officials will track progress.
Some assembly members asked for revenues and expenses to be kept in a separate fund. Ward said that would be too difficult and offered to provide regular financial reports instead.
The borough is anticipating collecting $789,040 from drop-in fees, catering, special events and room rentals.
The mayor said two groups of residents approached him with ideas for operating the facility but those ideas were “not very thought through.”
Ward expressed doubt about developing a viable business plan in which the Carlson Center supports itself. He said the plan presented to the assembly is the most cost-effective way for the borough to manage the facility.
“The Carlson Center has never covered its own costs, and I don’t see any time in the foreseeable future where it would cover its own costs,” Ward told the assembly.
A consultant was paid $95,995 by the borough last year to conduct an economic assessment of community needs and how the Carlson Center could fulfill them. The assessment involved focus groups, interviews and online forums.
“We have done, I think, our due diligence as a borough to examine what services that facility should be providing to the public,” said O’Neall, who is presiding officer of the assembly.
“Let’s try it out,” she said. “We’ve done our homework and we are ready, I think, to take a confident step forward.”
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.