St. Tammany recreation district hopes to expand before seeking tax _lowres


A Slidell-area recreation district wants voters to adopt a property tax that would provide the money to replicate Mandeville’s Pelican Park on the eastern side of St. Tammany Parish.

But first, the board that runs the district wants to expand its borders, taking in a larger swath of taxpayers in order to spread out the financial burden of building and maintaining the planned attraction.

St. Tammany Parish Recreation District No. 16 unveiled a master plan for a $21 million park to a small audience in the Slidell City Council chambers last week and drew mostly positive feedback.

Site plans show a 75-acre initial phase that would include eight playing fields, a 50-meter pool, a gym, a dozen tennis courts, two playgrounds and a 1-mile walking trail.

The idea, according to the board, is eventually to grow larger, just as Pelican Park did. Eventually, it would expand to 220 acres with features like a skate park, a dog park and a bigger gym.

But Chairman Sharon Hewitt acknowledged that the board still has work to do before it can choose and buy a site, build facilities and fund an operating budget for the as-yet-unnamed park.

The first step, even before getting a tax passed, will be expanding the recreation district in order to encompass more property.

As is, the district consists of unincorporated parts of Wards 8 and 9. Hewitt and the project’s other supporters would like it to also take in Recreation District No. 9, which they describe as a largely defunct entity, and the city of Slidell. They want more taxpayers sharing the cost and argue that residents in those areas will be close enough to enjoy the park in any case.

With its present boundaries, Recreation District No. 16 would need a total of 13.15 mills to pay for the $21 million bond issue to create the park and $1.3 million per year for operations and maintenance, according to the presentation. That would cost the owner of a $150,000 home, which the district described as the median, $98.63 per year.

Folding in District 9 would reduce the needed millage to 9.35 mills, or $70.13 per year for the same homeowner.

If Slidell, but not District 9, agreed to become part of the district, the millage would be cut nearly in half, to 6.45 mills, dropping the cost for the owner of a $150,000 home to $48.38. If both the city and District 9 were added, 5.8 mills would be needed, and the same homeowner’s cost would drop to $43.50 a year.

Lowering the millage rate isn’t the only reason the district hopes to expand. If the boundaries don’t grow, the park could face a situation where half of its users are paying for it and half aren’t, Hewitt said.

“The logical thing is all working together,” not a situation where people have to prove they live in the district to gain admission to the park, she said.

Slidell Administrator Tim Mathison said city officials plan to sit down with the recreation district’s board this week. The board also plans to meet with parish officials to discuss the possibility of taking in District 9.

Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik, who spoke in favor of the plan, said he hopes to see District 9 and the city included in Recreation District No. 16 because it would help the prospects for passing a tax.

One audience member voiced skepticism. “I don’t have a child here, and the majority of people in our subdivision are nearing retirement or retired and don’t have children here,” Richard Denunzio said.

He said he doesn’t want to pay for other people to use the park and compared the project to another tax-supported entity, the Northshore Harbor Center, which he called a debacle. “Ninety percent of the time there’s nothing there,” he said. “Let’s not make the same mistakes.”

Hewitt said her children are also grown and her grandchildren are unlikely ever to use the park. But she pointed to the hundreds of classes offered by Pelican Park, many of them free. The Slidell-area park would also offer exercise facilities, a public pool and tennis courts — amenities that adults can use.

Other audience members were supportive of the plan and praised the park’s potential for economic development.

Kim Bergeron said Slidell hotels already get the overflow when tournaments are played at Pelican Park. “We need something like this,” she said, pointing out that Slidell has an advantage with the convergence of three interstate highways.

Stefancik cited the growth of hotels in the Airport Road area, with a fifth under construction. Recreation is “part of the business of this parish,” he said.

Members of two youth sports organizations, the Slidell Youth Soccer Club and the Slidell Bantam Baseball Association, also spoke in favor of the plan.

Jay Albe said the soccer organization is meeting the needs of youth for now, but he predicted that growth is going to happen in the Slidell area, making the park a pressing need.

Charlie Clavier said the Slidell area could draw big tournaments, like one that was held in Gulfport, Mississippi, this year, if there was room. “I think we’re missing the boat,’’ he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.