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Subsidized competition: Shawano rec center could hurt private fitness biz

Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 11, 2019  

By M.D. Kittle  

Jean Darling has lived in Shawano for 20 years. She loves this Northwoods community of 9,300 residents.  

But she’s not thrilled about the possibility of a city operated 100,000-square-foot recreation center attached to the high school. 

Darling has owned and operated Total Fitness, billed as “Shawano’s Premier Health Club” for 14 years.  

She’s not afraid of a little competition. Shawano is, after all, home to three fitness centers.  

Darling is, however, leery of competing against a state-of-the-art, taxpayer-subsidized health club.  

“You’re asking a private business that pays taxes on everything to compete with a subsidized entity. Now that’s a challenge,” Darling told Empower Wisconsin.  

Shawano’s city and school district governments are teaming up to push the new joint recreation cente  — a project that could top $28 million to build and $400,000 a year to maintain. 

The proposed 100,000-square-foot Shawano Community Recreation Center would include a warm water pool, gym space for basketball, volleyball and tennis, a large fitness area, and an indoor track, among other amenities. It would be a shared facility, open to city and district residents. 

The facility would be funded through the school district’s Fund 80 levy.  

Randi Anderson, Shawano School District administrator, acknowledges that “in general, there would be a tax increase to the community.” And some Shawano residents like Darling say she would be forced to pay taxes on a government-run fitness center that could drive her business out of business.  

“Total fitness is one location, it’s not a chain. I could never afford buying (hundreds of thousands of dollars) worth of equipment,” Darling said.  

Taxpayers also would subsidize employee wages at the new rec center, artificially driving up staffing costs in the area.  

“I’ve researched the wages in the area markets. I’ve always stayed competitive,” Darling said. “But why would someone work for me when they can get twice as much from a subsidized” recreation center.  

City officials are awaiting the results of a survey to gauge interest in the project. Anderson said the city and school board will hold joint meeting next month on the survey’s findings. The question could go to voters in a referendum as soon as spring, according to the local newspaper, the Shawano Leader.

Darling, who served on the Shawano School board for six years, said schools should focus on their core mission, providing the best education for children. She wonders if building and operating a $28 million rec center for the community is a “primary focus” for the school district.   

Still, if the community approves the center, Darling said she will support the decision.  

But Darling knows that being a booster for the community you love sometimes comes with a heavy price.

Want to know more? Listen to the conversation on the John Muir Show on WTAQ in Green Bay. 

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