City should include public in HERC conversations

Changes are once again in the wind for the old Homer Middle School, fondly known as the HERC. This time, there’s conversations among some City Council members to sell the land and building. The HERC (Homer Education &Recreation Complex) sits on a 4.3-acre chunk of prime Homer real estate on the corner of the Sterling Bypass and Pioneer Avenue which some consider to be the “gateway” into Homer.

In the past, the building has been used as classroom and offices of the UAA KPC Kachemak Bay Campus, temporary offices for city employees during remodel work on other buildings, and the home for the Boys &Girls Club. True to its name, the HERC is currently used as a site for community recreation. Inside there’s youth basketball, Zumba, youth gymnastics, Pickleball and badminton. Outside there’s the skateboard park.

The proposal of erecting a public safety building on the HERC site was recently turned down by the voters, but during this process, the city requested the restriction for educational and recreational use of the HERC be removed and the city get clear title to the property. The Borough agreed, thus paving the way for the city to dispose of or use the property as it wishes … including selling it.

Over the years, the city has discussed several options for the HERC from demolishing the building, mothballing it, to now possibly selling it. Yes, it’s an old building that needs upgrades, but it’s in a prominent location that residents and visitors alike see when they drive into our town and it’s actively being used for recreation. There’s still a cost to be incurred by the city to heat the building to offset any adverse snow load to the roof, so why not keep the building open to the existing groups while exploring possible new uses?

Rather than viewing this venerable old building as a deficit, I would invite the City Council to explore what the HERC can be: a community recreation center, an after school center for our children who are impacted by the new bus schedule, a community park, a site for community classes, etc.

Some Homer City Council members feel the South Peninsula Area Recreation Center (SPARC) can meet the recreation needs in our community. The City provided $189,000 in capital funding for the SPARC and is now, through a 2018 budget amendment, proposing an additional $20,000/year (for 5 years) in operating funds to the SPARC “to help prepare the community for an alternate use of the HERC.”

While the SPARC is a wonderful community asset to which my husband and I have contributed both time and money, it has its limitations. There are not enough hours in the day for the SPARC to absorb all of Homer’s community recreation needs and the SPARC’s flooring doesn’t work for some sports.

I urge the City Council to engage the public in a conversation about the HERC before any decision is made which would permanently seal the fate of this important public asset.

Janie Leask is a lifelong Alaskan with a love of recreational sports and a strong belief in community involvement.