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The rehabilitation or replacement of the Robert Crown Center, the City’s most-used public park building, has been in the planning stages for about 15 years. Everyone who sets foot in the center can easily recognize the need for upgrades. With a price tag ranging from $17 million to upwards of $30 million, according to information from City Chief Financial Officer Martin Lyons, the City has pushed taking action farther and farther into the future.

Rather than take on the expense itself through general obligation (GO) bonds that would be paid by taxpayers over the coming decades – a strategy used to pay for recent massive sewer system upgrades – Council voted earlier this year to try to find gifts and grants to cover at least a portion of the cost of a new Crown Center.

On June 15, Council approved City staff’s recommendation to hire Community Counseling Services, Co., LLC (CCS), as an outside fundraiser to find donors. The cost: $477,500, with an initial $75,000 going toward a “feasibility study.”

CCS was one of what Mr. Lyons called “two high quality responses” to the City’s request for proposal issued in the spring. The other, Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt, LLC, offered a significantly lower total cost – $285,000 – but, according to the staff memo, “CCS’s proposal offers substantially more in services … which the committee feels are vital to project execution.” As an example, according to the memo, the CCS feasibility study proposes 50 to 75 major donor interviews, while Ter Molen contemplated about 35.

The CCS proposal also “includes full time on-site campaign management. In the review committee’s opinion, full-time hands-on capital campaign support is critical to success due to the City’s limited resources and expertise in this area,” staff wrote in the memo.

The total cost, nearly half a million dollars, is “a large sum,” said Mr. Lyons, “but our goal is $17 million” or more. “The fundraiser will get 3% of $17 million” if that is the amount raised. Even if less money is raised, the fee is set.

Mr. Lyons said the feasibility study will set a realistic expectation as to the amount that can be raised in a capital campaign. CCS will conduct interviews with major donors to get a sense of the interest level, when funds could be provided, how much, and “whether they’re interested in naming rights. … It is very important to identify those who are willing to give big,” said Mr. Lyons. The commitment level from a capital campaign’s top five or ten donors establishes, with reasonable predictability, the total expected return.

“Contrary to maybe what some people might think, we’re not stupid,” said Alderman Don Wilson, whose Fourth Ward includes the Crown Center. “We’ve been out in the fundraising community” talking to potential donors and philanthropists. Donors need to see that the City can “demonstrate that we’re going out and doing this capital campaign” before any commitments will be made.

The costs of a campaign is “substantially less than debt,” added Ald. Wilson. “Way, way less than debt [in the form of bonds]. … We’re not saying to taxpayers, ‘You foot the bill, pull out the credit card.’”

The City has been moving away from incurring debt to cover expenses, said Mr. Lyons. Overall, the City has lowered its bonded debt from about $190 million to $150 million in recent years, he said. In support of Ald. Wilson’s point, Mr. Lyons said, “I wish I would have thought of the interest rate” of debt being higher than the $477,000 charged by CCS.

According to Mr. Lyons, the capital campaign would seek funding at two thresholds based on two proposals submitted for a new Crown Center. One level is the $17 million facility, keeping the center at roughly the same size, and the other the $31 million facility that would expand the center to include 2.5 sheets of recreational ice. If the campaign can raise enough, the larger center may be possible. Regardless, it is likely the City will incur at least some debt, with donations covering only a percentage of the total cost of the project,

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked if the City or CCS had approached Olympic speed skating champion Shani Davis, who once trained at the Robert Crown Center. “He promised to help, and he knows a lot of people,” said the Mayor. Mr. Lyons assured Council that Mr. Davis would be offered the opportunity to help rebuild his former training home.