Town officials and residents met last week to talk about what sort of presence the town may have at a sports complex being planned by Edge Sports Group at The Downs. Courtesy / The Downs

SCARBOROUGH — Town leaders are debating whether it makes financial sense to lease the 71,000-square-foot Edge Sports Complex planned at The Downs as Scarborough’s new community center.

Over the course of a 30-year lease, the cost of a community center located at The Downs would be an estimated $49.7 million to use the facility. A separate facility built and owned by the town outright, discussed as a second option, would ultimately cost an estimated $11 million.

The Downs is a 429-acre, multi-phase project between Route 1 and Exit 42 of the Maine Turnpike, and is home to Scarborough Downs racetrack. The parcel is now also being developed for various residential, commercial and recreational uses. Since September, an ad hoc community center committee has been looking into the need for a community center at the site, its potential offerings and how a center would be funded.

“There is sufficient evidence, resident support, and rationale to continue studying the opportunity to build a community center in Scarborough, provided that lease terms advantageous to the Town can be negotiated,” the committee wrote in its Jan. 31 report to the council.

At a workshop Wednesday, the group effectively finished its work on the project by presenting its findings and recommendations to the Town Council.

Town Council Chairman Paul Johnson said the council would officially review the committee’s recommendations and vote on whether to proceed formally with the project at a future meeting.

The proposal included the results of an online public survey asking what residents might want in such a facility. Matt Tonello, the committee’s chairman, said there were 1,800 respondents.

“We were hoping for 1,000,” Tonello said.

Close to 77% of survey respondents support building a community center. The top desired amenities included a swimming facility, multi-purpose gym, indoor walking track, fitness area and childcare room.

Respondents were less enthusiastic about the proposal for a hot tub, lounge and shop and concession space, which were the least desired amenities.

More than 90% of respondents supported funding the facility through user fees.

The top reasons individuals said they were not supportive of the community center was because they felt the town has higher priorities or that the costs would outweigh the benefits.

The committee also looked at the cost to build a community center on the municipal campus, either where the outdoor ice rink is or where the tennis courts are. A 65,000 to 69,000-square-foot facility, which would not include an ice rink, was estimated to cost $33.8 million to build. It would most likely be funded through a combination of membership fees and tax dollars.

The committee said the final two estimated costs to taxpayers – $49.7 million for a 30-year lease, or $11 million for a town-built structure – factored-in projected revenues generated by the facility.

Residents who attended Wednesday’s workshop were concerned about the potential tax burden. Richard Hayes said if the town builds the facility, taxpayers should not contribute at all to the cost. Instead, he said, let membership fees from the building’s users fund the project.

“If you want to use the facility, you pay for it,” he said.

Johnson said he liked the concept but had grave concerns about its affordability. While a self-built option would be much cheaper, he doubted floating a bond would work, given other projects the town is working on right now, such as the new public safety building and plans for both a library expansion and primary school consolidation.

Johnson said he is open to suggestions, including developers presenting more reasonable bids for the project, but as it stands it looks too expensive.

“Unless something drastically changes, it doesn’t seem financially feasible for the town,” he said.

Discussions for a community center in Scarborough date back to at least 1978, when the town was planning out its municipal campus, which includes athletic fields, tennis courts and schools.

In November 2001, voters rejected a referendum funding a $5.7 million, 30,000-square-foot community center. In November 2005, shortly after a plan for a YMCA to locate in town fizzled, residents rejected a referendum that would have created a $1.2 million community center for senior citizens.

In July 2006, a YMCA plan resurfaced, but the funding needed to build it never materialized. In 2014, Friends of Scarborough Hockey, a resident group, proposed constructing a 37,000-square-foot ice rink, but town councilors halted the proposal because of concerns about the location and lack of a swimming pool and other amenities.

In 2016, the town listed a community center as a need in Scarborough within the next five to 15 years.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Town Manager Thomas Hall said the volume of survey respondents says a lot about public interest in a community center, and that could be a driver for the project going forward, in spite of its cost.

“The demographics in our community are changing in such a way that a facility like this is going to be essential,” he said.

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