Deal Struck for Conrad Complex Lease

By Beacon Staff

After months of negotiations, Flathead County reached an agreement last week to keep the Conrad Complex, highlighting the department’s ongoing struggle to secure and retain public lands in the face of rising costs. Meanwhile, in Kalispell, the city’s parks department proposed park maintenance districts and impact fees to buoy its budget.

The county and the Conrad Memorial Cemetery Board agreed to a five-year lease for the Conrad Complex, a 27-acre sport facility with seven baseball fields located east of Woodland Park. Beginning in September 2009, the county will pay $15,000 for the first year with a 2 percent annual increase each year thereafter. At the end of the five years, there’s an option for a lease extension.

For about 40 years, the county has been paying a lease of just one dollar per year, allowing the parks department to put tens of thousands of dollars into developing and improving the complex.

“We took that from a buffalo pasture to a beautiful sports facility, so we were pretty worried we’d have to give it up,” Jed Fischer, Flathead County weed and parks director, said. “There’s definitely a sense of relief that we were able to work something out.”

The Cemetery Board and Parks Board had gone back and forth over the lease rate for several months. Early talks indicated the Cemetery Board wanted as much as $40,000 per year before it came down to a $24,000 figure. The park board originally countered with a $5,000 offer, before the two sides settled on the compromise.

Instead of going to taxpayers to cover the additional cost, Fischer said users of the complex will pay an additional $5 to $15 each. Thousands of residents use the complex each summer – almost 100 teams are signed up to play in the county softball leagues this year. Adult softball teams currently pay $650 to $800 per team to play, which covers maintenance and utility costs at the fields.

The Flathead High School girls softball team also uses the site as its home field; in exchange, Kalispell Public Schools allow the county use of school gymnasiums for other recreation programs.

“The complex is so good for so many people that we felt like this was a better – and more affordable – deal than trying to rebuild somewhere else,” Fischer said.

If the two sides hadn’t come to an agreement, Fischer said reconstructing the complex elsewhere would’ve been at least a half-million-dollar venture. To build one field costs about $70,000, he said, and tear-down expenses at Conrad Complex were estimated around $100,000.

The lease worries with the Conrad Complex are an example, Fischer said, of how rising costs have made it increasingly difficult for his department to acquire and keep lands for public use. Currently, the county manages recreational programs and about 60 parks with a total budget of about $350,000, comprised of monies from the county’s general fund and recreational fees.

The county is developing a countywide master plan identifying parks that are unusable or too expensive to develop, in favor of improving remaining parks, Fischer said.

“There’s a definite funding challenge for the program,” he said. “The master parks plan will hopefully identify creative ways for us to maximize our budget, whether that’s selling some of our unused parks or possibly creating park maintenance districts.”

For Kalispell Parks Director Mike Baker, park maintenance districts and impact fees would be the best way to ensure the city’s 400 acres of developed park land are maintained.

“Our funding source is the general fund,” Baker said. “That’s hard because there’s only so many pieces of the pie and every department is vying for a piece. These districts would guarantee a source of consistent funding for the department.”

At last week’s Kalispell City Council meeting, Baker pitched the creation of parks districts to the council for the upcoming fiscal year. The districts would levy fees on homes and businesses to maintain the parks within each area. A 4,000-square-foot lot would pay $17.60 annually, while a 7,000-square-foot lot would pay $30.80 annually, he said. Fees would be capped at no more than $150 a year for residential lots and $500 a year for a commercial lot.

This year’s budget proposal includes about $800,000 for park maintenance, Baker said. He estimated the districts would raise roughly $432,000 annually – opening up monies in the general fund for other departments.

The city council will likely consider the parks impact fees and districts this summer.

It’s a funding source Fischer says is worth considering for the county as well. “I think they have huge potential, but that would require commissioner support.”