The Leander City Council considered a pitch for an public-private partnership alternative to the planned Leander Recreation Center on Thursday, Nov. 14, during their briefing session.
Premier Athletic Complex (PAC) co-owner Jeff Buch, who completed purchasing the 42,000-square foot athletic facility in Leander about three weeks ago with three other investors, argued the council could benefit by partnering with them to use their facility for their Rec Center.
He said the partnership would saved the city money over the original plan to build a new facility. He also argued the site has 10 unused acres for development, meaning the cities could any amenities, such as a swimming pool, to their final design.
Buch's previous experience includes helping to build and then subsequent manage the Westlake Athletic and Community Center and St. Michael’s Christian Academy's athletic center. The entities he worked with on both facilities own the land and building while his side covers operations and upkeep costs in exchange for being able to run them as a private business outside of the facilities' designated hours.
The citizen-approved bond funds can only be used for the ballot's narrow language, but the council does have the option to use those funds to simply repay the bonds and seek a different approach for the Rec Center.
The council took no action on the presentation because it was given during a briefing session. Any further action will depend on whether a council member brings the item back as an agenda item in the future.
Leander voters approved the creation of a Recreation Center in May 2016 by passing an $18 million bond, which would cover the acquisition of land, its construction and equipping it.
In May 2018, the previous council approved a contract with the Greater Williamson County YMCA to operate and lease the facility from the city once it is constructed. that decision has been a subject of controversy.
The city was involved in negotiations with Austin Community College for plans to build the rec center on land the college will continue to own. But at the council's June retreat, Leander Mayor Troy Hill argued he "would like to halt any more discussion about a YMCA for a while and look at an option for the private-public aspect and see if we can come up with something better for a lot less money."
Hill originally advocated for a partnership with the Hill Country Indoors sports facility in Bee Cave, which he argued could generate property tax revenues for the city. He said he has since moved away from the idea of that idea because they are a purely for-profit model and their membership costs are significantly higher than an organization like PAC.
However, he said he would support any effort they made to open a facility on their own in Leander, including offering economic incentives.
Hill criticized the YMCA contract because the city would have to cover any expense not covered by its membership revenues. Council member Michelle Stephenson retorted that the YMCA's non-profit model is based on making the memberships affordable and being able to work with families even if they can't afford a membership.
In an interview after Thursday's meeting, Hill said his only priority is find a cheaper alternative to the city's current $18 million Rec Center plans, particularly given his concerns about taking on more debt given the city's current debt level. He said he is also now prioritizing an alternative that will have affordable memberships for the pubic.
He argued PAC would meet both criteria.
Buch told the council Thursday their memberships are $50 per month, although each membership can cover the entire family. He said they could drop the rate down to $35 per month or lower depending on what agreement the city could seek.
He also said they work with families that can't afford their memberships, working out payment plans that might involve them volunteering for the facility on certain days.
Because the presentation was simply aimed at introducing the idea to the council, details about what a public-partnership would look like if they council goes forward aren't yet available.
Hill said options could range from offering property tax abatement options in exchange for PAC drastically reducing membership fees to PAC find a partnership with Leander ISD that the city could help support to PAC reorganizing as a non-profit so the city would have more options for helping to fund it.
"I'm a big proponent of public-private partnerships when the public benefits," Hill said. "If we could get something that's like the YMCA that...costs almost nothing, what's not to like?"