The current recreation center, at 1200 Koelle Blvd., functions more like a community center in design, according to Councilman Robert Costantino.
“We need something that is a little more useful, multi-purpose,” Costantino said, after a recent council meeting, explaining the reasoning for the new center. “There’s soccer, there’s football, there’s baseball, there’s wrestling, there’s cheerleading, there’s so many programs in town and there’s really not enough space to house them all.”
According to Mayor Michael Gonnelli, the center will be the size of a soccer field, but with a longer width, because it will also feature wrestling and cheerleading. It is planned as a pre-fabricated building, built off-site.
“This week, we’re going to start researching around five or six locations that have them,” Gonnelli said. “I went and looked at one they built in Lyndhurst. It’s really not what we want; it’s just a basketball court. We want this center to be soccer, wrestling, volleyball, all the sports kids play year round. We have no place for these kids here.”
“It’s going to be a big, open gym, with turf,” Gonnelli said.
“We have to visit some structures and see what we like.” – Michael Gonnelli
Long time residents likely remember the controversy surrounding the current recreation center, which had a grand opening in Feb. 2009.
During its construction, then-Mayor Dennis Elwell claimed that local taxpayers will pay “nothing, or almost nothing, for the recreation center,” which was only partially true.
His administration struggled for months to release construction cost numbers, upsetting local activists concerned about how the town would fund the center.
In the end, the center ultimately cost almost $12 million to finish, despite original projections of $4.5 million. In 2007, the town council passed a $10 million bond ordinance for the center. An additional $1,064,380 came from a payment received from developer Fraternity Meadows and another $40,000 from billboard revenue, according to a town hall newsletter at the time.
Additional costs came from an environmental cleanup on the center’s site, which delayed the opening.
Annual operating costs were originally projected to be $716,000, the town hall newsletter added.
Eventually the center ran at a loss, generating a $538,311 deficit in 2009 and a $681,090 deficit in 2010.
Today, the center takes slightly less revenue in than its expenses, according to Town Administrator Gary Jeffas. So how can Secaucus avoid a repeat with a second recreational center?
“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to build it from a pre-fabricated building, to lower the costs,” Costantino responded.
Gonnelli admitted, “We don’t know how we’re going to fund it yet. There’s a million ways that we can fund this, and we’re going to look into every way to fund it. First of all, we have to come up with a price. We have to visit some structures and see what we like. Then we’ll come back to everybody and tell them what’s going to happen. We’re not going to do anything behind anybody’s eyes.”
The mayor estimates that this year’s surplus will be $6 to7 million. Next year, the town expects to see $100 million in ratables, which could bring $3 to 4 million for 2019’s surplus, he said. Previously, the town paid the Meadowlands Commission (now the N.J. Sports and Exposition Authority) $3 million annually. However, since New Jersey municipalities no longer contribute to tax sharing, Gonnelli said, the town may use those funds, along with surplus money, for the center.
The current center garnered additional controversy, when Elwell refused to put it up for a referendum. However, Gonnelli said that the council will have public meetings on the new center.
“We’ll definitely bring it up,” he said. “They’ll be open communications the whole time.”
The town plans to use land on Millridge Road and Koelle Blvd by the Pre-K Millridge School for the center. Gonnelli warned that the council is still working things out at this stage. But: “It’s definitely happening.”
Local resident Sam Maffei, who has previously criticized the current center’s cost overruns, doesn’t see the second recreation center in the same vein.
“It’s not going to be a recreation center in the sense as the one on Koelle Boulevard,” Maffei said. “It’s going to be a practice field with a roof on it. That’s the interpretation I got. Hopefully, they keep the costs down as reasonably as possible.”
Maffei has previously suggested converting the current center for other uses to save money. “The bottom line is, the taxpayer is going to have to pay for this. They have to be taken into consideration, too.”
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