Friends of Mosquito Lake School and Community Center board members are building a case for keeping the facility open for the coming fiscal year.

At a meeting in February, Haines Borough Assembly members identified the Mosquito Lake Community Center as one of several facilities that could be offloaded in an effort to reduce the borough’s budget in light of recent decreases in state support for municipalities.

Since the Mosquito Lake School closed in 2014 due to falling enrollment, the facility, which currently functions as a community center, has been on the chopping block every few years, Friends’ chair Dawn Drotos said.

In March 2015, Friends of Mosquito Lake advocated that the borough keep the former school building off the borough’s “for sale” list and, instead, make use of the building as a community center or rented space. Back when the facility was a school, it had doubled as a gathering space for community events in the evenings, Drotos said.

The following year, the assembly approved a Memorandum of Understanding with Friends of Mosquito Lake. Under the agreement, the borough retained ownership of the building and responsibility for utility costs while Friends of Mosquito Lake assumed responsibility for cleaning, light maintenance, landscaping, garbage collection, coordinating events, and rental of the space.

Prior to the agreement, the facility had been mothballed, with the borough paying to maintain and heat the facility without using it.

“We’re doing our best to make use of this facility,” Drotos said. “It gives people up (the highway) a place to gather that’s convenient.”

For the past couple years, the facility has averaged roughly three events per month—a total of 36 events in 2018 and just over 30 events in 2019. Turnout at these events averages 40 people, according to board members. The facility is also used by the borough for roughly five meetings a year and for storage, Drotos said, listing borough-owned boilers and the electric car used at the cruise ship dock, which are housed in the facility’s garage.

This year’s discussion of selling the community center has coincided with increased efforts to utilize the space. In the first two month of 2020, the facility hosted 17 community events. If the trend persists, the community center is on track to host roughly 100 events this year. Recent events include weekly yoga classes, “Tuesdays with Tracy,” a seed swap, farmers markets and an upcoming movie night.

The upswing in use is, in part, the result of recent efforts by Erika Merklin to put the facility to use. Merklin said she went through the borough’s comprehensive plan and identified different ways the community center could work toward some of the goals outlined in the plan.

“No other borough facility is working on food security,” Merklin said. She said her vision for the community center is as a gathering space that promotes community resilience and hosts a range of events including events geared toward education and food growing.

“At first, we didn’t do much long-term planning because we assumed it would revert back to a school after a couple years,” Drotos said. “Now it looks like that won’t happen, so we can do more long-term planning.”

These long-term planning efforts come at a time when the borough is looking to cut costs.

“There’s a fiscal problem the borough has,” said assembly member Paul Rogers, who attended last week’s Friends of Mosquito Lake board meeting. Efforts to increase the use of Mosquito Lake Community Center “come at a time when state spending is down. I’m a very practical person when it comes to finances.” Rogers used an analogy of a two-income household that’s reduced to a single income. “Your life has to change if your income changes and you can no longer afford things… I think (the borough’s) at that point here. If we don’t do something now, we’re going to have a worse problem in two years.”

“We don’t want to be unfairly targeted for cuts when we’re the cheapest facility the borough has,” Friends’ board member Jim Stanford said. “We’re totally staffed with volunteers. It seems almost ludicrous that they would think of targeting this facility.” He referenced the cost of other facilities like the Chilkat Center, which brought in a total of $23,000 in rent for the last fiscal year while costing the borough $114,000 in expenditures, and the library, which brought in $22,000 and cost $438,000 to operate for the same year.

Between 2016 and 2018, the Mosquito Lake Community Center averaged $28,000 a year in maintenance, insurance and utility costs. From 2018 to 2019, facility costs nearly doubled, with most of the increase coming from a spike in heating, snow removal and septic and plumbing costs.

Board member Derek Poinsette said the increase in costs likely stems from years of deferred maintenance at the facility which came to a head last year. “The heat goes out periodically, causing the borough to spend money to put out a fire that should have been dealt with more proactively.”

Drotos said being proactive about maintenance issues like the septic system and getting better control over the heating system could save the borough money long-term. Changes to the management structure of the facility could also help bring in more revenue to support operation costs by increasing use of the space and facilitating long-term rental agreements, she said.

At present, the board pays the borough $50 per event under two hours and $100 for events that run longer, Drotos said. The events Friends of Mosquito Lake host are free to the public, which means the organization must fundraise in order to pay for the rental space. Drotos said this often involves board members selling plants, clothes and other possessions to scrape together a few thousand dollars to host events each year and contributing hundreds of volunteer hours. In 2019, the borough generated $1,250 in rental revenue from the Mosquito Lake Community Center.

Rogers said he was interested in learning more about maintenance-related cost savings and sitting down with board members and public facilities director Ed Coffland to see which are feasible. Rogers said he would be willing to act as a liaison between Friends of Mosquito Lake and the assembly. At press time, Coffland had not responded to Chilkat Valley News questions about the cost of deferred maintenance at the facility.

Friends of Mosquito Lake board member Terry Basford said getting rid of the facility would be a mistake since the upper valley has a lot of development potential. If the Palmer Project becomes an operating mine, it has the potential to attract a lot of young families to the upper valley in the coming years, he said. “A new school will cost money. In the long run, it’s pound foolish (to sell the community center).”

Board members also expressed concern that selling the facility would reduce borough services for upper valley residents. “We’re taxed at the same rate as the folks in town, but we don’t have the same access to a lot of the facilities in town,” Drotos said. “(The community center) is one of the most meaningful options the borough has to show it wants to serve people out the road. If it shuts it, maybe they would consider lowering taxes on people out here.”

Landowners outside of the townsite service area generated approximately $330,000 in property taxes for the 2019 tax year “but most of that, as with all property tax, went to support the (Haines Borough School District),” borough finance director Jila Stuart said.

Rogers said the return upper valley residents get for their property taxes “is miniscule.” Driving into town to access services like the library and pool is time-consuming and expensive. However, he said he made the choice to be an upper valley resident.

“I can tell you that I may come across as a hard-nosed pain in the butt, but it’s because I tend to see things as more or less black and white. Either you can justify your existence or you can’t,” Rogers said. “We need to do more in Haines to grow the economy and draw people to the community.”

“I really do feel like there’s a lot of functions that can get stacked in a community facility,” Merklin said. “People really do need places to congregate, places for people to go and feel safe and have multi-generation gatherings, a space dedicated to food security.”

On Saturday, the center is hosting a movie night coupled with a seed-starting event. Merklin said this gives kids something to do while parents plant seeds. She said she hopes the event is the first in a series that builds toward the creation of a community garden and future plant sales to generate revenue for the facility.

Other uses for the facility discussed during the Friends of Mosquito Lake board meeting included: hosting borough meetings on upper valley-specific topics like the heliport, a Salvation Army-run disaster relief station, a coronavirus quarantine facility, a shower facility for community members (this would require renovation of the facility’s septic system), putting the facility’s commercial kitchen to use, partnering with the library to set up a computer lab, allowing a child care facility to operate in the building and setting up a small gym.

Drotos said in some cases people chose to live in the upper valley, “but also in some cases people can’t afford to live in town. People who come to events out here don’t necessarily have money to go into town and pay for events.”

Merklin said it is important to keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be “an either or” when it comes to borough facilities and services. “I really enjoy the library and my son uses the pool. I don’t have this idea that my money shouldn’t go toward facilities in town. I just feel that we should have funding to run this building the way buildings in town are run and maintained.”

“People come out the road from in town to attend events as well,” Drotos said.

The borough’s budgeting process begins on April 1 when borough manager Debra Schnabel presents her budget proposal to the assembly. Drotos said she hopes to meet with Schnabel on behalf of Friends of Mosquito Lake before she finalizes her budget. In addition to selling the facility, the borough may be considering other options like mothballing the facility and holding onto it, Drotos said.

The next friends of Mosquito Lake School and Community Center board meeting will be March 26 at 10 a.m.