Glog, Glog! Two-fer on the Gym

Dear Readers,

Oh, you luckies! Here are TWO guest blog entries in one. Here you have even more opinions on Takoma Park’s Gymnasium controversy. The first is from Rueben Snipper, recently elected councilmember from Ward 5. The second is from Dan Robinson, a cvic and environmental activist of many years.

Enjoy! And, please leave your own comments!

– Gilbert
Gym — A bigger vision

by Reuben Snipper, Ward 5 Councilmember

As the new kid on the Council — but not on the block — I’ve waited a decent interval to comment on the discussion of the proposed gym. While a week as council member isn’t much time, I have lived in Takoma Park for over 20 years. I want to offer some thoughts from people I talked to during my campaign.

Unlike the discussion on this list, folks that I talked to were in favor of a gym, but they envisioned not only a space for more sports activities, but saw many uses for a large space.

Think of this past weekend: the Green Building Conference brought out many local people and businesses. Most of the rooms I visited were packed. The Community Center rooms are designed for small events.
Takoma Park is full of people with knowledge and skills. We have artists, musicians, journalists, business people, people working at non-profits, teachers, scientists, politicians (sorry to bring that up), and many other people doing interesting work. With them, for example, we could have a conference for teens thinking of careers. We could have a conference of just the non-profits in Takoma Park. We could have a conference of people doing international work. We could have a local “battle of the bands.” We could have a fair with local artists. We could have folk dancing, etc., etc. You get the idea.

If we had a large space, we would use it for events that build on the talents and skills of our neighbors; we would use it to learn from each other. To me, the Green Building Conference is just the start of what we could do with a large community space.

Of course, a gym isn’t perfect for many of the above events, but it would be good enough. Sure, a gym would enable more sports activities, but it could be much more than that. As we do things together, we will be building the kind of close-knit community we keep talking about.

I think we need such a gym, but many others are not convinced. So what we need to move forward is a plan to decide. (Much of the material below is available already, but needs to be assembled.) From what I’ve heard, we need — and others should add to this list:

— Proposed uses. We need a list of the proposed uses of a gym, along with alternatives if we don’t build one.
— Lessons learned from the Community Center experience. We need a serious, complete accounting of that experience, including a realistic assessment of how to avoid the mistakes.
— Designs. We need a range so we can see which features we REALLY want.
— Cost/financing. We need a complete accounting of construction costs, including allowance for inflation and unexpected costs. We need a realistic plan for obtaining as much financing from the state, county, and other sources. We need staffing and operating costs.
— Management of the project. If we decide to go forward, we need a plan for managing the project that accounts for the “lessons learned” from the Community Center experience. We will need an experienced construction project manager.
— Public involvement. Finally, and perhaps most important, we need a public process. The City and Council need to pull together the materials above in an easily digestible form with executive summary, detailed tables, etc.; the public needs to read it and engage in deciding this issue.

I believe we have most of the above materials already, but they need to be assembled into a coherent report, with supporting detail. The public needs to review the report to identify missing pieces, etc.

Some have suggested we use a survey to gauge interest in a gym. As a professional statistician, I would never omit a survey. But I am concerned that without the above material — read and discussed — people will not be able to form a real opinion on the matter. Ten years from now, we want to look back and say we made the right decision.

Can we do this? I think so. Takoma Park is a city of thoughtful and knowledgeable people. I believe we can engage them in coming to a position we can agree on.
Reuben Snipper
Another Viewpoint
by Dan Robinson
Congratulations to Seth and Gilbert for reporting on and synthesizing the whole gym shebang.
I have a pretty long memory on all of this, having organized six ward-specific town meeting/focus groups on what citizens of TP wanted, way back in ’97-98, as part of a council-mandated, staff-supported strategic planning effort that came to be called ‘Takoma 2010’. I also organized a couple of networked community association/tenant group roundtables a few years before that. Let me go back and describe those two briefly, then add a couple of observations.

Several hundred people showed up at the town meeting/focus groups. Each councilperson had a chance to chat with his or her constituents. There was some reluctance on this score, but in the end all were good sports. At the focus groups we did a brainstorming effort, and people put little colored circles next to all items as ‘votes’. I put all the ideas and votes into a database and put it on the web (that’s my expertise). Believe it or not, all those responses and all that information is still available at this website – go and take a look at what people valued at that time. The SWOT column refers to a strategic planning approach. You’ll get the picture.

The networked neighborhoods and tenant group meetings were very interesting. There was a certain amount of common ground, but by the third meeting the distrust and anger in the air between the homeowners and renters was palpable. There was no fourth meeting. The 2010 process begun later was in part an effort to bridge that gap in a different way and it worked. There was strong tenant representation from Lee Avenue residents and a good deal of tenant participation in the town meeting/focus groups. We went out of our way to make this happen.

Now come my opinions. The 2010 staff and citizen members had high hopes when our process was complete. Our report was presented to the Mayor and Council in 1998, and to our surprise the strategic planning initiative was promptly abandoned. Rick Finn had been appointed city manager and the 2010 support staff left or were fired as a cloak of secrecy dropped around the city administration. Many citizen committees were marginalized. Some citizen insiders, most importantly those on the Recreation Committee, hung in and gained the ear of Rick Finn, and the Community Center/Gym process was born.

The 2010 report mentioned a community center/gym only briefly (check the website), and in passing, yet the idea of a place for kids to hang out was there. Howard Kohn and the Recreation committee had a good deal of experience working with kids in the Soccer League and other sports-related efforts, and Howard became the carrier and facilitator for the center/gym charge.

Howard is a competitive guy, and has pushed hard over the years to see this dream come true. He has worked tirelessly to achieve his ends. I don’t begrudge him the success he’s had. For a while I engaged in debate with him and others on the Takoma listserve about the early promises and the cost overruns, but felt beaten down by him, former mayor Sharp and others as they pursued their goals and minimized the opposition.

I had a beef – that the Community Center/gym process had morphed into an exercise to rebuild the administration building and police digs. Though there was considerable space planned for community activities, it now appeared that there were to be entirely new and expanded offices for the administration and police. That wasn’t what had been discussed or agreed to, and though it may be that staff and police needed more space, it felt like the wool was being pulled over the eyes of the public. I had heard reports of ill treatment of staff and some citizen committees (my committee was an example), and there were numerous rumors circulating that City Manager Finn was clamping down on information emanating from the City, and that departing employees were being forced to sign non-disclosure documents. There was substantial staff turnover, and the Mayor and Council appeared grim at meetings as they adamently supported the City Manager and as the cost of the Community Center doubled, then tripled, and the gym was dropped until a later phase. I wondered what had become of the notion that we, the citizens and council, could agree on what we wanted, then go after the funding, rather than going after funding and justifying the project as it progressed and grew.

I kept slogging along, co-founded Sustainable Takoma, co-chaired the City Manager Selection Committee and the TASDI committee, and have now nearly finished constructing a small office building near New Hampshire Avenue. I’ve gotten some distance from those times and frustrations and would just as soon leave these things in the past. However, I see the same homeowner/tenant issues coming up again with the gym construction.

Here are my suggestions – be clear and up-front that the gym would be for both lower-income and higher-income kids and adults. Show that it would be an asset in that regard, as well as something that would belong to the city. Do not fudge the numbers. Put this issue on the ballot as soon as possible (before November) to let the general citizenry weigh in. (Look at the numbers – 60 people showed up over two days in hearings, 285 signed a petition asking that this issue be on the ballot.) Then abide by what the voting members of our community say. Finally, move on to the more important issues that face our community, namely to find continuing ways to bridge that gap between property owners and renters, to take the County to task for short-changing us for decades, to get better control over the land within our own borders, and, most importantly, to start now (that means right away) to reduce our energy use and increase our reliance on renewable energy in substantial and continuing ways for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
Dan Robinson.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.