City Staff Detail Uses and Costs of Hannah Center
Above: The pool at the Hannah Community Center.
Members of the public who attended the community engagement meetings last month were asked to review a spreadsheet of possible funding cuts as part of the conversation surrounding East Lansing’s budget shortfall. By far, the single largest cost-saving option on that list was the closing of the Hannah Community Center, which staff estimated could save the City of East Lansing just over one million dollars per year.
In an effort to figure out just what that million-dollar figure included, and what closing Hannah would mean in terms of Parks & Rec offerings going forward, I sat down last week with East Lansing Parks, Recreation, & Arts Director Tim McCaffrey and Assistant Director Wendy Longpre.
The Hannah Community Center, located at 819 Abbot Road, is a popular public facility in East Lansing, with over a 100,000 “door bangs” per year according to McCaffrey. It’s difficult to calculate how many individual users that number includes, because some visitors come and go many times throughout the year, using the fitness center or swimming pool, dropping off and picking up children from All-of-us Express play rehearsals, participating in public meetings or the Prime Time Seniors program, or participating in one of the many other activities that is housed in that building.
Since it was renovated in the early 2000’s, the Hannah Community Center has housed almost all of the Recreation and Arts programming that the City of East Lansing has to offer. In terms of usage of the fitness facilities (pool and work-out room), in 2016, the City of East Lansing sold 5,492 daily passes, 943 ten-visit passes, 59 six-month passes and 1,115 annual passes, totaling an estimated 44,000 person-visits to the fitness center and/or pool.
The Hannah Community Center we know today exists because, in 1998, East Lansing voters passed a $7 million bond to finance the change from a former public school to a community center. These renovations included the updating of the building along with significant landscaping and site improvements. The front entrance was changed to an “at grade” entrance, accessible to wheelchair and scooter users. (The former entrance featured a large staircase.)
The renovation, which only included the first two floors of the building, ended up costing approximately $10 million. According to McCaffrey, the decision not to renovate the third floor came down to “Do you skimp on the first and second floor, or do you do a good job on the first and second floor?”
He explains, “At the time we made the decision to say, ‘Look, we’ll do the first and second floor better and perhaps someday we’ll get to the third floor.’ And we’re twenty years out, and we haven’t gotten there yet.” He added, “I think that, had we not done what we did on the first and second floor, there would have been a lot of disappointment in the facility when we opened it.”
McCaffrey also explained that when staff first talked about opening Hannah as a community center, they estimated that they would require about 270 parking places to accommodate the anticipated use. Following neighborhood feedback, they decided to make due with 185 parking spaces in order to leave the green space intact.
According to McCaffrey, the neighborhood has been very accommodating about cars parking on residential streets during busy nights at Hannah, which happens multiple times per week. Judging from the reaction of neighbors during the initial renovation, McCaffery anticipated that it would be difficult to sell off the current green space on the lot because it is so highly valued by nearby residents.
According to McCaffrey, in the 1980s and ‘90s, recreation services were handled by a non-profit agency, a collaboration between the City of East Lansing and the East Lansing Public Schools, called East Lansing Recreation and Arts (ELRA). That agency had an executive director and a City-appointed board.
In a follow-up to our meeting, McCaffrey explained via email that, “Following the passage of the 1995 parks bond, the 1998 Aquatic Center bond, and the Hannah Community Center bond, it was determined that the most productive administrative structure would include dissolving the non-profit (ELRA) and City of East Lansing would take on the responsibilities of ELRA along with the new parks and recreation facilities that were constructed as a result of voter approved bond issues.”
Before the Hannah Center was renovated, many of East Lansing’s recreation opportunities were based in the Bailey Community Center, which was closed as a community center in 2015 in a contentious Council vote and is set to reopen soon under a different set of uses.
Once the Hannah Community Center opened, it became the home base for expanded Recreation and Arts programming. These include the fitness center and swimming pool which are located within the center, but also programs which are held off site, such as the popular “Zombie Survival” summer camp which meets in White Park.
Staff for those external programs are considered “contingent” staff by the Parks & Rec Department and float between many jobs depending on where they are needed. Without the regular employment offered by the programs at the Hannah Center, Parks & Rec would not have enough work to keep these contingent employees employed.
Of the $1,010,905 projected savings should Hannah be closed, $587,455 (or about half of the total) is tied to “Building Operations.” According to McCaffrey, the rest of the savings would come from eliminating staff and programs: “That would be the front desk staff, Community Center Coordinator, Recreation and Arts Coordinator, Event Planner, Theater Technician, and it would also include the Senior Programs and Service staff. So that’s 9 full-time staff [and] 62 part-time staff.”
The programs eliminated, McCaffrey says, would include some programs that take place in or are dependent on the Hannah Center facility. That includes the Prime Time Senior Program, children’s aquatics classes, the pottery studio, the public art gallery, and the Transition program, which is an educational program for special education students who have aged out of High School.
McCaffrey and Longpre also walked me through the inherent difficulties involved with opening the third floor of the building. Because Hannah is an older building, there would be about a million dollars’ worth of work that would have to be done just to bring the third floor up to code, including adding fire breaks between the floors, adding modern bathrooms, and updating the utility infrastructure.
Another expensive problem is adding a fire exit, which at a minimum would involve a catwalk and an external stairway to the ground level. There have been ongoing discussions with private developers over the years about the possibility of leasing the third floor for private use, but “they usually walk out just as fast as they walk in” after hearing the cost involved with bringing the third floor up to code, said McCaffery.
City Council postponed the annual Budget Retreat that had been scheduled for the Hannah Community Center this past Saturday, deciding to wait until hired external consultants Public Sector Consultants has had time to provide a report on community feedback regarding possible budget cuts. That budget discussion is now scheduled for Council’s meeting next Tuesday, February 20.
Among five new tax proposals being considered by City Council are some that would specifically provide funding for the Parks & Rec Department.
Correction, February 16, 2018: When this article was published, it indicated that "The programs eliminated would likely be everything that takes place in or is dependent on the Hannah Center facility. That includes the Prime Time Senior Program, children’s aquatics classes, the pottery studio, the public art gallery, the basketball club teams, and the Transition program, which is an educational program for special education students who have aged out of High School." The basketball club teams are not dependent in this fashion, so this paragraph was changed accordingly.