A recent survey found that many Scarborough residents want the town to have a community center, but exactly where it would be built, by whom and for how much are questions to be answered in the coming months.

The town has mulled the idea intermittently since 1978, but a proposal pitched by the developers of the Scarborough Downs has municipal officials talking about leasing a custom-built facility that would be part of a privately owned sports complex.

The Downs developers, made up of the Risbara and Michaud families of Scarborough, are overseeing a $621 million mixed-use project on the 500-acre harness racing property. They brought in the Edge Sports Group of Bedford, Massachusetts, to design and run a sports complex in the village center they plan to develop near the racetrack.

As proposed, the complex would include an indoor ice rink and synthetic turf field, likely to be operated by ESG, plus an indoor pool, walking track, gymnasium, fitness room and other amenities that would be leased to the town and available to residents and others. It would be funded through a combination of property taxes, user fees and membership fees that has yet to be determined.

In September, the Town Council appointed a 13-member advisory committee to assess local demand for a community center and design a facility to meet that demand. The committee also must analyze the build-to-lease offer from The Downs and ESG, and compare it to the more traditional approach of having the town build its own community center.

“The work that we’re doing is applicable to any community center in Scarborough, even if we pass on this proposal from The Downs and The Edge,” said Paul Johnson, one of two town councilors on the advisory committee.

The committee also includes two school board members and nine town residents who bring a wide variety of professional experience to the process, including financial, construction, athletics and legal expertise. Only the nine resident members can vote on committee actions.

Of 1,689 town residents who responded to the committee’s online survey in October, 1,285 (76 percent) said they supported construction of a community center. The top five amenities that residents said they would like to see in a community center were a swimming facility, a multipurpose gymnasium, an indoor walking track, a fitness room with equipment and a child care room.

Among the 404 residents (24 percent) who said they didn’t support construction of a community center, many worried about out-of-control spending, higher property taxes and a population that seems to be growing too fast. Some said the town has other more pressing concerns, such as the much-needed renovation and expansion of its elementary schools. Others said letting an out-of-state company build a community center and then leasing it from the developers is a “horrible idea.”

“Cut out the middle man,” one survey respondent wrote. “Build it ourselves.”

Last year, the council approved a credit enhancement agreement that will reimburse as much as $81 million in property taxes to The Downs developers over three decades. In return, they must meet certain goals in building a mix of commercial, light-industrial, recreational and residential development that’s well underway, including 48 condominiums, 48 apartments and 30 single-family homes.

The agreement also requires the developers to give the town at least five years to build a community center at The Downs, where several possible sites have been identified, Johnson said.

The advisory committee last week submitted a “wish list” of community center amenities to The Downs and ESG, seeking cost estimates for everything from locker rooms to administrative office space in what would be a nearly 60,000-square-foot building.

Town Manager Tom Hall said the committee is on track to send its final report to the Town Council by mid-December, and the council is expected to make a decision on the build-to-lease proposal in early February.

“We’ve not seen any numbers yet,” Hall said. “This will give town councilors the opportunity to determine whether this is something they want to pursue. We should never do anything unless it makes financial sense. I’m hoping (The Downs and ESG) will be able to offer us some very attractive lease terms.”

Hall said town officials recently toured one of ESG’s latest projects, the Boston Sports Institute in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a 130,000-square-foot facility that features two NHL-regulation ice rinks, an indoor turf field and a competition-level swimming pool. The town provided the site, and ESG negotiated a 50-year land lease for the center they built, own and operate. The facility offers preferred use times to Wellesley High School, Wellesley Youth Hockey, Dana Hall, the Wellesley Swim Association and the public.

“We’ve been impressed with their ability to work with public-private partnerships,” Hall said. “They have an interesting package of skills, and they know what they’re doing.”

Hall and Johnson said they were unaware that ESG ran into trouble with one past project, the Essex Sports Center in Middleton, Massachusetts. Both said the council would dig into ESG’s background as part of the due-diligence process before signing a build-to-lease agreement for a community center.

Built in 2016 on state land near a regional technical high school, the Essex Sports Center includes two ice rinks and an indoor turf field. The center was developed and is operated by ESG, and it is owned by a limited liability company established by ESG.

ESG and its affiliates gained control of the site in a controversial no-bid deal approved by the Massachusetts Legislature. The center leases the property for $111,000 annually, and the school receives 40 hours of free time at the center each year, according to The Salem News.

In separate lawsuits filed in 2017 and 2018, an investor and a contractor claimed Essex Sports Center LLC had misused funds, failed to pay the general contractor and several subcontractors more than $1 million, and left the facility operating in the red with overdue property taxes, The Salem News reported.

Brian DeVellis, ESG president and part-owner of the Essex Sports Center, said the litigation stemmed from a partner dispute that has been settled according to undisclosed terms.

“As a minority owner, I was pulled in,” DeVellis said in a written statement. “The litigation was dismissed this past summer, and ESG is currently managing the facility, which is 100 percent leased and in good standing.”

Asked how he would ensure that similar problems don’t crop up here, DeVellis said the Scarborough project is being developed with entirely different partners and based on a very different model of ownership and leasing.

“We’ve consulted on and created athletic venues, sports programs and organized league play throughout New England for more than two decades,” said DeVellis, who is a lawyer and landscape architect. “(We) have a strong track record. … We expect this will be a much simpler process.”

The Downs developer Rocco Risbara said he’s confident that ESG has the expertise and experience to make the Scarborough sports and community center a success.

“We brought in ESG because they have a good reputation and expertise in developing sports facilities,” Risbara said. “We’re satisfied we’ve got a good partner, and our lenders are, too. We’re not going to put together anything that doesn’t work for everybody.”

The developers of The Downs will discuss their latest plans at a public meeting Tuesday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the grandstand building.

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 19, 2019, to clarify the ownership and operation of the Essex Sports Center.


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