HERC gym hums with busy-ness

The sounds of friendly pickleball competition fill the air inside the gym that is part of the HERC, the Homer Education and Recreation Complex. Laughter, the slap of shoes on the gym floor, the pop of balls on paddles. Three games are in progress, four people each game, more sitting on the sidelines waiting their turn. 

A sign on a wall advertises weekly contra dance classes beginning later this month. A notice on the gym door alerts playgroup parents that no real-tire bikes or tricycles are permitted in the gym. Painting supplies are stacked in the middle of a room near the gym that is being readied for a Zumba fitness class. 

Just outside, in the late evening sunshine, there’s more chatter as a group of skateboarders practice their moves on the curved ramps.

In spite of all the activity on the ground floor of the two-story HERC and the skateboard area, there’s a possibility the building may be razed. The site on which it and another building exists is being considered by the city as the location for a new public safety building. 

According to city of Homer Resolution 13-096, passed Sept. 23, 2013, the “city council has concluded it is in the best interest of the community to demolish the buildings and use the site for the proposed new public safety building.”

The Public Safety Review Committee decided at its Sept. 24 meeting to prepare a memo to be presented to the Homer City Council identifying the site’s pros and cons. The memo will be available for review at the committee’s Oct. 8 meeting, according to Ken Castner, the committee chair. The meeting will be held at City Hall at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public. 

“The motion was to put together a memo to the council that says here’s the site, here are some issues that have to be addressed, some conflicting uses and conditions,” Castner told the Homer News. “What it would take to bring that site up to a constructible standard is going to cost some dollars. There will be lost resources of not only recreation stuff, but Public Works has space in one of those buildings. All of those things have to be lumped together.”

Other issues listed by Castner that need to be resolved include placing a public safety building next door to Homer Middle School and concerns over wetlands.

Of all the locations considered for a new public safety building, Castner said the HERC site is “the only four-acre site left on the list.” That is the size needed for a single-story combined fire and police station according to a space needs assessment done for the committee by Loren Berry Architect and USHK, now Stantec, and completed in August.

“It’s been my contention all along that (the public safety building) was going to be shoved to this site,” said Castner. “People said we need to look at other sites, but they kind of fall off the list because they’re not four acres. Given what we’re charged to do, that’s the only site that is even viable.”

Kate Crowley, the head organizer of ReCreate Rec, a community group addressing the area’s recreational, wellness and extracurricular needs, is currently circulating a petition requesting that the site be maintained for recreational, cultural and educational purposes. ReCreate Rec also is conducting a needs assessment scheduled to be completed by next spring.

“The petition is to keep the designated use for recreation and education as it has been since the city bought the property in 1998,” said Crowley of the formerly owned borough site.

In 1998, the city of Homer’s Resolution 98-63 urged the borough to convey the 4.303-acre piece of property and buildings on it to the city “to allow public use of the gym and associated restroom facilities.” 

The borough followed up two months later with an ordinance that said there was “a large demand from the public for use of the gym” and “the city of Homer is the appropriate entity to properly manage the facility for community purposes as the city has park and recreation powers while the borough presently lacks such powers inside the Homer city limits.”

 In 2000, for the price of $1 the site was quitclaimed to the city with the restriction “that the site shall be owned in perpetuity by the city of Homer or its successor and be managed for the use and benefit of the general public.”  

Crowley said that same desire to use the gym exists now as it did in 1998. 

“So, for us to have this site really be scooped out from under us when we’re so close to getting a parks needs assessment is really quite painful,” said Crowley.

Since January 2013, 440 people have made a total 9,946 visits to the HERC gym to participate in activities that include a playgroup for ages up to 5, pickleball, gymnastics, youth basketball, youth wrestling, indoor youth soccer, women’s basketball, men’s basketball and contra dance, according to Mike Illg, coordinator of the city’s Community Recreation Program. 

Fees from those activities have brought in $9,194.

In addition to the outdoor skateboard park, there is an outdoor basketball court and a green space used for recreational activities by such groups as Special Olympics and Homer Animal Friends. Illg said he also has received many requests from nonprofits and private businesses interested in using other portions of the HERC.

Deb Lowney, who serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, said the HERC gym “is probably one of the top recreational spaces that this community has.” Her concerns about losing it echo those expressed by Crowley.

“It leaves us with absolutely nothing and no path for getting something,” said Lowney. “If we could see two, three years down the road, a new facility to take its place, that would be easier.”

Lowney believes a “thorough vetting” of sites for a new public safety building has not been done. In particular, she noted the additional space that could be gained at the fire and police stations’ current site if the city pursued the possibility of purchasing the borough’s maintenance property east of the stations.  

“All we’re asking for is the gymnasium to be saved, with the basketball and skateboard court,” said Lowney. “Those are way too valuable to lose.”