By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City will place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether they support redeveloping the former public school into a community recreation center that could cost as much as $20 million if an indoor pool is included.
The non-binding referendum is intended to give city officials a better sense of whether residents want to renovate the old school, build an entirely new recreation complex or simply do nothing at all with the site at 4501 Park Road.
“This is another tool for the city to feel the pulse of the public,” City Solicitor Paul Baldini said in an interview.
Plans for the referendum were announced Tuesday during a City Council meeting. Baldini said only registered voters in Sea Isle will be able to cast ballots. That means taxpayers who own vacation homes and other property in Sea Isle, but live somewhere else as their principal residence, will not be able to vote on the referendum.
The city has already been gathering public feedback on the school project through a community questionnaire. Nearly 800 questionnaires have been turned in by members of the public, City Business Administrator George Savastano said.
“We had an outstanding response,” Savastano told members of City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. “The findings were interesting.”
Although there was no consensus about the project in the questionnaires, the public seemed overwhelmingly in favor of building a new recreation center instead of renovating the old school for that purpose, Savastano noted.
However, public sentiment was somewhat “murky” whether the recreation complex should include an indoor pool, he explained.
Katherine Custer, the city’s director of Community Services, said the construction cost for a new recreation facility that does not include a pool would be between $13 million and $16 million.
The cost of building a new recreation center with a pool is estimated at $17 million to $20 million, Custer said. In addition, it would cost an estimated $500,000 to $1 million annually for maintenance and staffing of a pool.
A third option floated by city officials would be to renovate the existing school building into a recreation complex at an estimated cost of $2 million. No pool would be included in the school’s renovation and the building would not be anywhere near as elaborate as a new recreation complex.
City officials said they want to gather as much public feedback as possible before any decisions are made on the final cost and design of the school’s redevelopment – or whether to even go forward with the project.
“Everyone is going to have a voice in what we’re going to do with this building,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio assured the audience in remarks during a June 29 town meeting about the recreation project.
The old school, built in 1971, occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. The school closed in 2012 due to the city’s declining student population.
The building is currently used for office space, storage, special events, community programs and public recreation in the gymnasium. City officials said the building is in need of a new heating and air-conditioning system, a modern gym, new windows and doors and new handicap-accessible bathrooms. It also does not meet current flood standards.
In 2015, the city conducted a community survey asking the public for suggestions on what should be done with the old school. The highest number of respondents, or 36 percent, proposed having the building redeveloped as a park or recreation site. The second-highest response was to use the property as a parking lot.
During the June 29 town meeting, Savastano discussed the tax implications of renovating the old school or building a new recreation complex. He based the figures on an average Sea Isle home assessed at $700,000.
There would be no increase in local taxes if the city simply renovated the school, he said.
If the city built a recreation center without a pool, the estimated construction cost of $13 million to $16 million would add between $100 and $200 annually in local taxes for 12 years. After 12 years, the project would be paid off, according to Savastano.
The estimated $17 million to $20 million construction cost for a recreation center that has a pool would result in an extra $300 to $400 in local taxes annually for 12 years, he said.
Savastano repeatedly stressed to the audience at the town meeting that no final decisions have been made by city officials about the proposed recreation center. No timetable has been given for building the project.