The city will continue working on an indoor recreation center proposal, but quietly, as the school district works on its own building plans, officials say.

“The city council has told the school board that we will not be on the ballot at the same time that they are on the ballot,” City Manager Kevin Dorn told attendees at an indoor rec center public forum last Tuesday. “After this meeting, tonight, we will largely go dark.”

The decision follows conversations with the school district and city councilors, Dorn said. Both entities believe keeping the stage clear for the school to inform voters about its own $209.6 million joint middle/high school and wellness center plans will cut down on confusion. The school’s proposal will go before voters on Town Meeting Day 2020.

The city will continue meetings with architects Freeman French Freeman and Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype, Inc., to flesh out designs, programming and cost estimates for an indoor rec space. City staff will then bring that information to the city council in November, Dorn said. The city’s website says the council will review and consider action on a proposed plan in December.

The decision to clear the stage for the school district follows a history of miscommunication between the city and district. Most recently, the two entities were at odds over stormwater management and safety concerns at 180 Market Street – the future site of a new city hall/library/senior center In August, council chair Helen Riehle told The Other Paper the city’s rec center proposal would not be a “race” against the school’s own building plan. 

“Going dark,” as Dorn said, allows the district to have access to the public and vice versa. It avoids confusion between their plan and the city’s potential plan.

The city and school district will continue conversations around potential shared use of the school’s wellness center – which would house a 200-meter athletic track and some other fitness areas. However, discussions have shown that such a collaboration would be challenging due to the two parties’ programming and scheduling needs.

“We will continue the discussion, but I think we’ve already concluded that’s [sharing space] not possible,” Dorn said. 

Rec center designs taking shape

Designs for the proposed rec center have been planned on land at Veterans Memorial Park. The rec center – as currently designed – would be situated adjacent to Cairns Arena, leaving the surrounding athletic fields largely untouched

Thus far, designs include: two wooden courts, a synthetic material court, an elevated, three-lane track, a turf court, movement studio, office and conference spaces and room for expansion which could someday include an indoor pool. Over 200 parking spaces would be added to the lot creating about 422 spots total. Architect Joel Bargmann said that during large events, with an average of three occupants per car, that level of parking would support between 1,200-1,300 people. 


During the presentation, Bargmann told attendees how the space, with adequate storage and program planning, could be transformed to accommodate various groups and activities. For example, the two wooden courts could be partitioned with dividers to allow multiple basketball games to play at once. The two wooden courts and one synthetic court could hold up to nine pickleball courts at a time, Bargmann said. And spaces like the movement studio, which would be used for dance, yoga and other active classes, could support the Recreation and Park Department’s puppy training program. 

“You can see how the day can work and accommodate different age groups, different schedules,” Bargmann said. “It’s really an age-friendly facility.”

The center could also be used for events like a farmers market, concerts, graduation and other gatherings, he said. 

Survey says …

On Aug. 28, the city launched a survey to help inform the design of an indoor rec center. Over 800 people responded to the 37-question survey. 

Some key results:

70 percent of respondents currently use an indoor recreation, sports or fitness facility.

50 percent currently use services provided by South Burlington Recreation and Parks.

19 percent currently use city recreation program facilities.

38 percent said the hours for existing programs are inconvenient.

30 percent reported lack of sufficient parking as an obstacle to use.

50 percent would use a new indoor rec facility several times per week.

77 percent would travel there by car.

One attendee at the Sept. 17 forum was concerned that with just over 800 respondents, the survey was not representative of South Burlington’s 19,000 residents. 

“You only talked to a very, very small number of people,” she said, adding that she wondered if the city had heard some negative feedback as well. 

Holm said that the city received feedback both in support of and opposing the center. 

“Of course, there were folks who were like, ‘We don’t need one [a rec center],’” Holm said. “There was positive [commentary] and there was negative in there. I would say the vast majority were on the positive side.”

She added, resident and former professor at St. Michael’s College Vince Bolduc said that a sample of 400 survey respondents for a city the size of South Burlington was significant. The rec survey received more than twice that number of respondents.

Bargmann noted that the survey wasn’t to determine whether or not folks wanted the building, but rather to see if the building was built, how the public would like to see it designed. 

One attendee questioned how residents could say whether they wanted certain features or not before having a cost estimate. Bargmann said that cost estimates had to follow the design and operational plan. 

“You can’t put the cost together until you know what you’re doing,” he said, adding, “It’s not that hard to change this.”

Features like the turf court could be removed from the plan for cost savings, he said. 

Dorn said the council was listening to residents’ concerns about project costs around the city. City Councilor Meaghan Emery attended the forum and said she was present to hear from the community. 

“The council is very sensitive to financial questions,” she said. 

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