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Back from the dead

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Hannah Center, once a budget target, eyed for improvements

Last year, East Lansing’s Hannah Community Center had a target on its back. If voters did not approve a tax increase, the center was high on the cost-saving list.

“We were looking to make millions of dollars worth of cuts,” said Mayor Mark Meadows. “The funds for the community center would’ve given us the best bang for our buck.”

Droves of residents called city officials or spoke at public comment about the value the center brought to the city.

Said Meadows: “We could’ve closed it, but we had such a huge reaction for bringing up that idea.”

So much so that the city is looking in the other direction.

The City Council hopes a soon-to-launch advisory committee, designed solely to explore the future of the center, will guide improvements and programming for the next decade. Revenues and taxpayer-funded subsidies climb every year, but officials want to be sure they’ve continued to keep the community hub on the right track.

“It’s not just the activities that go on inside,” explained Mayor Pro-Tem Erik Altmann. “It’s the architecture. It’s the green space around it. With the location right in the middle of the city, just about anybody can access it. There are a lot of reasons why this community center is so important for the city. This is an opportunity.”

The East Lansing City Council came up with the idea last year to help gather information on national trends and community expectations to generate plans for improvements at the community center. The work group is scheduled to meet by March 1 and submit its priorities for Council members’ consideration later this year.

And officials don’t expect they’ll have any trouble finding support for the long-cherished, community hotspot.

Pam Weil learned to swim there when it was still the John A. Hannah Middle School. The East Lansing School District sold the building to the city in 1998 for about $150,000. Voters at the time approved a bond millage to transform the space into the community center. It still bore Hannah’s name when it opened in 2002.

“It’s really quite priceless,” Weil said. “It’s this hub where almost everyone can walk or ride over on their bikes. That break room is like the break room for the city. People are there all the time, playing chess or just socializing. Everybody is welcomed. Nobody owns it. It’s not a business. We all own it, and that what makes it what it is.”

Councilwoman Shanna Draheim wants to keep the committee focused on “bigger picture” ideas that could include renovations and added programming as the Council crafts the city’s revised master plan. And as general fund subsidies for the space continue to climb, some city officials are also focused on financial independence.

“Some of us had a feeling that the community center was used a bit like a pawn in the income tax conversations,” said Weil, who also serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission. “I’m hoping this will help give the community some confidence. It’s a priority for East Lansing, and I’d like to see it be totally self-funded.”

City Council last year allocated $844,000 from the general fund to float the community center’s annual budget. It’s an investment that has steadily climbed (by about 32 percent) over the last five years. City records indicate the center has only generated enough revenue to cover about 60 percent of its expenses since 2014.

Most Council members aren’t concerned about the financial support. The crowds that turn out to swim in the pools or use the fitness center help to showcase its value in the city. Space is also available there for classes such as Zumba, karate, painting, basketball, pickleball and dance. The Prime Time Senior Center also operates inside.

“It’s never going to be a moneymaker,” Altmann added. “It’s always going to require a subsidy. We’re hitting a particular niche and the community center is really valued here in East Lansing. We’re never going to charge hundreds of dollars to get involved there to break even. That’s not the point. That’s why people pay taxes.”

East Lansing’s Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Tim McCaffrey said the building was constructed nearly a century ago and hasn’t had a significant renovation in decades. A 2015 report recommended at least $3.35 million in renovations, of which $1.12 million was identified as “necessary.” Nothing has since been done.

“What sort of bigger vision could we have for the space?” Draheim asked. “Is it meeting our current needs? Will it meet our future needs? Nobody would disagree that it could use some updates. But before we make those decisions, we want to make sure that we’re going about things in a very intentional and thoughtful way.”

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com

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