County considering athletic facility

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A diminishing amount of gymnasium time available at area schools is squeezing Flathead County’s recreational programs and illustrates the need for a dedicated county recreational facility, county Parks and Recreation Director Jed Fisher said.

Fisher talked to the county commissioners recently about the idea of building a self-sustaining athletic facility patterned after the popular Warehouse facility in Spokane, a Quonset-type building with six basketball courts.

“Where I’m lacking big-time is for our recreation programs,” he said. “We’re in serious jeopardy of losing [the programs] due to not being able to use school gyms.”

Fisher said he recently received a letter from Kalispell Middle School informing the county of curtailed availability of that gym, and other schools already have limited the county’s use to keep pace with expanding school sport programs.

The county’s youth and adult recreation programs served 3,400 county residents last year. Around 230 volunteers and coaches run the programs. Basketball, volleyball, T-ball and flag football are offered to children, while adults can tap into basketball, flag football and softball leagues.

The programs are wildly popular, Fisher said, generating 24,800 phone calls a year. Often the county has to turn away participants midway through registration.

“We looked into the [Stillwater] Christian school” years ago, Fisher noted, “but that fell through. Five years ago Phil Jackson [former professional basketball coach] was interested in helping,” but that didn’t materialize, either.

“We’ve been so close so many times,” Fisher said about getting a dedicated building. “I think there would be people who would step forward” to develop such facility.

About $300,000 is available for the project from the county’s cash-in-lieu-of-parkland contributions, money from developers who opted to pay the county instead of developing parks within new subdivisions.

Once constructed, the athletic facility would be self-sustaining, Fisher said. It would be pay to play.

The county gets about $160,000 a year from user fees.

“It’s truly not a drain on government,” he added. “Run properly, it could help pay for parks maintenance.”

The county has 70 parks spread throughout the Flathead and ongoing maintenance is a perennial challenge.

“I want you all to believe in the need for this,” Fisher told the commissioners. “I would like an endorsement from the commissioners to go ahead to put together a site plan.”

Commissioner Gary Krueger thanked Fisher for his report and said he supports “going forward and working to develop some kind of facility.”

He cautioned, though, that he would view any proposal with a conservative eye.

Commissioner Cal Scott said the funding for such a facility would need to be nailed down more precisely, but he supported the idea, too.

“Part of the county’s responsibility is to take care of and guide youth as well as our older Americans,” Scott said.

Fisher said he intends to discuss the project in more detail during the county’s budget review slated over the next couple of weeks. He also wants to develop a sports committee of stakeholders who could shepherd the project.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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