By Mary Spicer
The plea went out and more than 200 members of the community responded.
Faced with a $260,000 budget shortfall created when Crawford Central School District responded to cutbacks in its own funding stream by withdrawing from a partnership dating all the way back to 1971, Meadville Area Recreation Authority convened at a town hall meeting Wednesday night.
United around the goal of finding ideas to make Meadville Area Recreation Complex financially sustainable, it was standing room only when a concerned greater Meadville community flocked to the assembly room of Meadville Medical Center’s Grove Street facility.
Ideas will be revealed at a future date once local facilitator Marlene Jenkins has had an opportunity to sift through lists of suggestions that eventually covered the walls of the room. Jenkins was hired by the authority to organize Wednesday’s event.
Forty-two years ago, Meadville resident Ellie Davies, the original authority’s sole female member, was thrilled at the thought that the Meadville Area Recreation Complex offered, as she described it, “some chance of getting a decent pool.”
Wednesday night, Davies was thrilled again to see the huge turnout of people who still care passionately about the facility.
A cross-section of the crowd revealed community leaders and MARC supporters including superintendents from Crawford Central and PENNCREST school districts; school board members, the mayor and members of Meadville City Council, city staffers, township supervisors, county commissioners and representatives from industries ranging from tool and die to tourism.
During a lengthy question-and-answer period that gave Executive Director Mike Fisher an opportunity to respond to a long list of questions and concerns, a wide range of suggestions was also offered.
Describing himself as “a hockey dad raised by swimming parents,” Meadville resident Dennie Finton pointed out that since Crawford County Youth Hockey Association has singlehandedly “filled many hotel rooms in this town,” it would be appropriate to support the facility where they skate by increasing the hotel bed tax from the current 3 percent to 5 percent.
Commissioner Jack Lynch pointed out that sixth-class counties like Crawford County can’t simply voluntarily up its bed tax, noting that the commissioners must talk to their legislators.
Meadville resident Barry Bittman described the MARC as “one of the cornerstones of the area.”
However, he continued, the organization is running a deficit of a quarter million dollars — per year.
“No amount of fundraising or ping pong is going to keep this open,” he said, referring to an earlier suggestion that the skating rink be used to host activities including competition ping pong tournaments during the summer months. “And this community can’t afford a tax hike.”
Bittman’s suggestion was to break the annual shortfall into 25 $10,000 “shares” that would be purchased by 25 employers each year. The shares would enable the employers to offer use of the facility to their employees.
With funds raised through the sale of the shares enabling the complex to eliminate fees for everyone, Bittman explained, members of the authority will be able to focus their money-raising efforts on fundraising for capital projects.
“If we all go back to our employers and get commitments for 25, we can keep it going,” he said, noting that between Crawford Central School District, Meadville Medical Center and Allegheny College, “they can buy enough shares to get it going.”
“That’s quite a concept,” Fisher said.
Although a timetable for the next presentation has not been set, the discussion will continue.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 725-6370 or by email at mspicer@meadvilletribune.