UA voters will decide on May 4 whether or not to build a community center.
BY JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23 AND MATTHEW DORON, ’23. PHOTOS BY PENELOPE CLARK, ’21.
On a bright Saturday morning, juniors Ellie Kissinger and Daley Straub walk around a quiet South Arlington neighborhood, masks on and clipboards in hand. They approach a house and ring the doorbell. The homeowner answers along with his dogs, and the three are soon engrossed in conversation.
The homeowner has never heard about the community center ballot issue, so Kessinger and Straub explain it to him.
“It won’t increase your taxes either,” Straub adds. Kessinger hands him a glossy brochure and tells him that an absentee ballot is included. She pets his dog and heads back down the driveway with Straub.
Kessinger and Straub are student canvassers advocating for residents to vote “yes” on the May 4 ballot measure to build a community center for the city of Upper Arlington.
The pair first became involved through the Student Innovation Team by distributing yard signs.
“We were really passionate about it … [and we] wanted to spread the word and do something good for our community,” Straub said.
A simple majority vote from Upper Arlington residents is needed to approve the measure and start construction. The proposed building, which would be on the site of the former Macy’s building at Kingsdale shopping center, includes an indoor pool, exercise equipment, a childcare area and a senior center.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
The idea for a UA community center has long loomed large in the minds of some Upper Arlington community members.
UA Councilwoman Michaela Burriss said that when she was campaigning in 2019, “every other house said ‘community center’” in response to the question “What is, in your opinion, the most important thing you’d like City Council to do or think about?”
Previous proposals—the earliest dating back to the 1980s— faced various obstacles, including lack of community interest. Some proposals were defeated at the ballot box; others never even made it to a vote.
The work for the current iteration of a community center started in July 2019 with the formation of the Community Center Feasibility Task Force.
The Upper Arlington City Council charged the task force with, among other things, “provid[ing] a recommendation to City Council on whether and how we might proceed in the consideration of a community center for Upper Arlington.”
Over the course of the next year and a half, the task force led a multi-phase study into the possibility of a community center. Once they deemed a community center necessary, they began investigating various sites for consideration, including Fancyburg Park and the current municipal services building. The task force also conducted surveys and financial assessments.
Their final recommendation came earlier this year, when the task force released its report to the community. In a letter to City Council, co-chairs Margie Pizzuti and Nick Lashutka wrote, “We firmly believe that this is the right time and the right opportunity for Upper Arlington to pursue a Community Center.”
Various groups have taken sides on the prospect of a community center in Upper Arlington.
One such group is Yes for a UA Community Center, which has a goal of raising support for the ballot measure. The campaign has distributed yard signs and enlisted canvassers like Kessinger and Straub. Campaign co-chair Catherine Strauss said additional efforts will include “phone banks to drive out votes once absentee ballots are delivered.”
“I think the most important thing [for voters to know] is [that] the value is there, the finances are right and the timing is now,” she said.
However, the prospect of a community center is not without critics. A group called Arlington Citizens for Truth in Taxation (ACTT) has launched a campaign in opposition to the measure. In late March, the group released a six-page report on its website, detailing why it opposes the community center.
The paper, subtitled “The True Costs,” takes aim at several aspects of the City’s plan, including the cost of operating the facility once built, increases in property taxes and the City’s plan to rent out office space to businesses.
Citing estimates that 16% of residents would become members, the group also doubts that a community center would be of use to the entire community, saying that “residents are being asked to subsidize this recreational facility for the benefit of the few residents expected to become members.”
“The community center really will offer something for every resident,” she said. “It is intended to be inclusive for all residents.”
If the measure is passed, City Council will appropriate funds for the project, but they have ultimately left the decision to the voters. While City Council as a whole cannot officially take a position on the issue, Burriss personally is in favor of the community center.
“I just don’t see why somebody wouldn’t vote for this,” she said.
THE $54 MILLION QUESTION
The community center would cost around $54 million to build, but the City says an increase in taxes won’t be necessary. Instead, the City has proposed a number of alternative funding sources.
The bulk of funding—70%, according to numbers released by the City—would come from tax increment financing, or TIF. This means that, beyond the current “base” valuation, any increase in tax revenue collected from the development area would be rerouted to paying off capital costs for the community center.
The Board of Education, too, would forgo some tax revenue. This is one of the chief points of criticism from those opposed to the measure.
“Since the School District is the principal funding source for this project, UA property owners can expect multiple, periodic property tax increases from the schools to make up for the lost revenue,” the ACTT report warns.
In a fact sheet all but explicitly responding to ACTT, the City stated that “no other property taxes of any kind can be increased without a vote of the residents.”
Additionally, the City has agreed to offer the school district several benefits, such as Brandon Road parking improvements for UAHS and the property of the current senior center. In order to do this, the City has agreed to transfer the location of the senior center to the community center.
“When you add up all these different items and the potential value of these items, this TIF with the community center is in line with some of the other TIFs we’ve approved in the past before,” said UA Schools Treasurer Andrew Geistfeld in a December school board meeting.
Publicly released plans also call for two floors of office space, which the City says could help supplement capital costs. Citing central Ohio’s oversaturated office real estate market, the ACTT report called this aspect of the plan “a risky bet,” though the City says this is a peripheral and not essential part of the financing model.
After construction, the actual operation of the building would be funded in part by memberships and daily passes.
Draft documents released by the task force propose a two- tier membership system—available on either a monthly or annual basis—with rates varying based on residency and other factors.
If the ballot measure passes and the City goes through with the draft model, an individual pass for UA residents would cost more than a senior pass for non-UA residents.
A NEW ERA FOR KINGSDALE
Even if the measure does not pass, the abandoned Macy’s building at Kingsdale will still be demolished.
Continental Real Estate, a Columbus-based real estate and development company, has already received preliminary approval to develop a number of lots in and around Kingsdale.
Regardless of how the community votes this May, the abandoned Macy’s building will be demolished and the surrounding area developed.
However, Strauss said that the Kingsdale location is important to the community center effort.
“We have this crown jewel of Kingsdale that could be our community center, which to me is really exciting,” she said.
Straub also stressed the finality of the May 4 vote.
“This is probably the last chance to get a community center,” she said.