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City of Lincoln moving ahead on new $6.5 million rec center in Air Park next to school
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‘A MONEY PIT’

City of Lincoln moving ahead on new $6.5 million rec center in Air Park next to school

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Repeated patching has kept the roof and cinder-block walls of the Air Park Rec Center intact and safe in recent years as the 65-year-old former military barracks shows its age. 

But city maintenance staff have had to get creative to address some of the problems at the building at 3720 N.W. 46th St., including boarding up the lower portion of gymnasium windows on the inside and covering them with Plexiglas on the outside to stop panes from breaking and raining glass shards onto the floor.

Rec Center Manager Debra Williams jokes that city maintenance staff limit her to one phone call a week because often problems arise daily.

"It’s kind of the money pit we want to get out of," said J.J. Yost of the Parks and Recreation Department. 

Parks and Recreation in 1979 opened the center — built in 1954 as part of the Lincoln Air Force Base — to benefit the Arnold Heights neighborhood.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the center served more than 1,000 people between its child care, youth, middle and high school, adult and senior programs, with overall attendance in 2018-19 of nearly 60,000, according to the center. 

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But as the building's decline continues amid northwest Lincoln's expansion with a new high school set to open in 2022, city officials have deemed the building unworthy of full renovation. 

The Parks and Recreation Department instead plans to build a replacement center on half of the four open acres immediately east of Arnold Elementary School.

The new, $6.5 million recreation center would call Huskerville Park home and stand on the same side of Air Park as the neighborhoods it serves rather than across Northwest 48th Street in relative isolation, Yost said. 

Early plans call for the center to mimic but modernize the current features of the center with a gym, community rooms, game room, Rock Steady Boxing program room, weight room and kitchen. 

Additionally, the Williams Branch Library would move into the new center, freeing up space in Arnold Elementary, Yost said. 

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Lincoln City Libraries Director Pat Leach called the joint project exciting. 

"We've really appreciated our partnership in Arnold Elementary School and are excited about enhancing library services in the greater Arnold community," Leach said in an email. 

City parks staff began saving money for a replacement facility last year as considerations about the center's future began to get more serious, Yost said. 

Under the proposal, the city would pair about $1 million in expected private donations with funds the city has saved and seek a bond for the remainder, an estimated $4.7 million, he said. 

Bonding for the project would mark a rare capital improvement project in which Parks and Recreation would borrow money to build, but Yost said the alternative means saving money for 10 to 15 years and doesn't seem practical. 

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"We don’t think we have that time left in the existing building," he said.

The bond would require City Council approval, and the debt would be repaid with annual keno funds the Parks and Recreation Department already receives, so the department considers debt financing low-risk, Yost said. 

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Parks and Recreation's last bond, in the early 2010s, paid for construction of a new clubhouse at Holmes Golf Course, Yost said.

As for the current rec center, the city must demolish the building when it vacates it as stipulated in its agreement with the Lincoln Airport Authority, Yost said.

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In the next few months, Parks Department staff plan to solicit public input on desired uses for the new center that they can factor into the new building's design and construction. 

The new building remains in the design phase, with construction pegged to start in August and finish in May 2023, Yost said.

"It still catches me off-guard," Williams said of momentum behind the new center. 

She said center staff have made the most of the building.

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A chalkboard wall in the hallway helps occupy children writing or battling in tic-tac-toe matches at summer day camp. Orange walls tie the center's weight room and multi-purpose room back to the 1970s.

Day campers in the summer help tend a garden out front, and neighbors previously hosted an annual Halloween carnival, Williams said.

Toward the back of the building, a mural stretches across the wall of the boxing room, sitting dormant because of the pandemic and hosting computer storage rather than its regular gloved fighters.

The Air Park Rec Center has served as the home since 2016 for the city's Rock Steady Boxing program, designed to help people with Parkinson's disease exercise and potentially slow progression of the degenerative condition. 

Rock Steady Boxing classes have also helped link caregivers of those with Parkinson's in de facto support groups held over coffee in the game room.

"They became the Rock Steady Boxing family," Williams said.

Florence and Merrill Crandall, regulars at the Air Park Rec Center, say they're excited about the proposed center and hope it allows walkers like them to get in their laps, Merrill Crandall said.

The Hub Hall Heights neighborhood couple credit the center for not only helping them keep active but also for helping them find a community after they moved here from Hastings eight years ago.

The Air Park Rec Center has given them space to walk in the gym during winter, doing the equivalent of three miles on their visits. 

These days, though, they miss the camaraderie of Senior Coffee Group, they said. 

The people they shared chit-chat with weekly before the pandemic helped them acclimate to their new city, giving them a network to tap for whom to call when they needed something repaired, for example. 

With programming like that shut down as a precaution, the Crandalls now email with members of their former coffee klatch instead. 

"It's just a truly welcoming place," Florence Crandall said of the center, "and we wish it would get more use than it does."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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