Throngs of excited kids will take over McMillen Park starting June 11 for the 15th season of the Lifetime Sports Academy. The academy is a remarkable program that provides local youngsters ages 8 to 18 with free golf, tennis and swimming lessons from professional instructors. It has become the biggest draw at the large southeast-side park.
Meanwhile, the massive McMillen Park Ice Arena, which used to be the parks main attraction, is sitting empty. But taxpayers are still paying for it.
City Parks and Recreation Department leaders have developed a solid plan to convert the unused arena into a much-needed community center. But there is no money in the parks budget for the proposed renovations. In fact, city taxpayers are still paying off a bond that financed a 2000 project that added a new sheet of ice. That bond wont be paid off until 2019.
When the McMillen ice rink opened in 1956, it was the first artificial rink in Indiana. In 2007, managers discovered the concrete floor beneath the original rink had shifted and cracked, and the pipes below the rink were damaged and leaking. Expensive repairs were needed to keep the older rink working, but there was no money.
New ice rink
About the same time, 3 Sheets Development LLC announced plans to build a $14.1 million ice skating arena at Wells Street and Fernhill Avenue, near Glenbrook Square. The arena, which opened in 2009, has three ice rinks.
To ensure the two facilities would not compete, the city signed an agreement with 3 Sheets Development to have Canlan Ice Sport, the Canadian firm managing the northern ice arena, take over management of the McMillen rink – a.k.a. The Mac – for 10 years. In return, the city contributed $250,000 in income tax revenue toward the private rink project. That management contract also expires in 2019.
Parks leaders made a wise financial decision to get out of the ice rink business. But the demise of McMillen Arena was a huge loss for McMillen Park and southeast residents. Now, park leaders need to make sure this major park asset doesnt continue to go to waste.
Canlan pays the utility bills and maintains the inside of the empty rink; the parks department maintains the landscaping and parking lot. The parks budget also covers parking lot lighting and security for the vacant building.
The most use the building gets now is the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatorys annual Mothers Day Plant Sale, which was moved to the ice rink in 2011.
The good thing is there hasnt been any vandalism, and I go and check on it regularly, said Leroy Jackson Jr., president of the McMillen Park Neighborhood Association. They put a lot of money into it to get it up to standards, and now its just sitting there.
Jackson said he heard a lot of questions about the building at a recent neighborhood meeting. No one is really telling us whats going on with it. Im getting questions because they dont want to see it sitting empty, he said.
Filling a void
Jackson, also president of Mind over Matter, a youth-mentoring organization, has another worry: There are not enough activities in the area for teens.
Since the Southeast YMCA closed, there are no inside basketball courts around here anymore, he said. Theres nothing for the kids to do but walk the street and get into trouble.
Parks Director Al Moll is refreshingly candid about the problem.
We have a real void there, Moll said. The area where we fall short is youth centers or community centers.
The southeast side lags when it comes to any recreational amenities. There is especially a need for activities for children and teens.
Its at the top of my priority list, said City Councilman Glynn Hines, the Democrat who represents the southeast 6th District. Ensuring the empty arena once again serves the needs of southeast residents was a major reason Hines decided to seek re-election last year.
To figure out exactly what residents think is the best use for the McMillen building, the parks department held four listening sessions last year.
One session targeted community leaders, one targeted youth and youth advocates, and two sessions were open to the public.
Parks officials deserve high marks for the comprehensive and inclusive method they used to gather public opinion. They also deserve accolades for crafting a reasonable plan that incorporates the best of the ideas from the public as well as filling service gaps within the park system. And then the parks department had a public meeting in August just to make sure the public approved of the proposed plan.
Hines attended three of the four sessions and thinks the resulting plan will be an asset to the community and to the whole city.
The main thing theyre concerned about is they held the listening sessions and then nothing will happen, he said
The plan was released more than a year ago, but there has been no progress.
We havent made a lot of progress, Moll conceded. But I think there is an understanding that we need to get ahold of some funding. Mayor (Tom) Henry is a big proponent of this, and thats a good thing. Its just a question of getting the funding. We cant go out and borrow money for this. That is not an option at this point.
Converting to community center
The plan to renovate the arena into a community center is estimated to cost $4.5 million. Once complete, the community center would be the parks and recreation departments largest and include programming for all ages.
Perry Ehresman, parks director of leisure services, said the McMillen building is about 82,000 square feet. The parks departments other four community centers combined total about 55,000 square feet. The plan includes plenty of indoor basketball or volleyball courts, exercise equipment and classroom space. It also includes an indoor playground.
Wed get a lot of traffic from all over the city from an indoor playground, Moll said, someplace where parents can bring their kids in the winter.
The first priority would be installing a new HVAC system and the indoor basketball and volleyball courts. That portion of the renovations would cost about $2 million.
Currently, the parks department is paying to rent other facilities for basketball.
We are a park system that doesnt own a gym, which is pretty unusual in the parks and rec world, Ehresman said.
Demand for indoor courts is high. Building the courts first would not only fill a major void in park services, but league rental fees would generate some revenue for the parks department.
One potential source for a portion of the needed financing for the project is the $75 million Legacy Fund from the lease and sale of the citys electric utility. The Legacy subcommittee reviewing youth development and sports proposals is considering the McMillen project.
Considering Henrys mandate to use those dollars to fund projects that will create a lasting legacy for the city, the McMillen community center project is a good fit.
Ive been doing this a long time and understand worthwhile projects can take time – Southtown Mall took awhile, Hines said. I trust the parks department is doing its due diligence on this and I trust that Al Moll is being a good steward of the dollars. If Legacy funds come through, it could happen a whole lot quicker. It just needs money.