Residents meet Conway Rec’s proposed private partner


Tony Sanneh, retired pro soccer player and founder of Sanneh Foundation, shakes the hands of residents at the Conway Recreation Center at a community meeting on Monday, July 22. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The 8,200 square foot Conway Recreation Center takes up an entire block just north of the Sun Ray Shopping Center. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The District 1 council met recommended Sanneh Foundation to take over operations at the community hub

After a slow and at times painful process, those concerned about the fate of the Conway Recreation Center may finally be seeing some light.

A private partner, Sanneh Foundation, has been approved by the District 1 Community Council and expects to move into the city-owned facility by Sept. 1. The foundation will be negotiating the final contract with St. Paul Parks and Recreation in coming weeks.

The foundation was the only group to respond to a request for proposals the parks department issued for the neighborhood rec center in March. From there, Sanneh Foundation’s proposal was reviewed by a community task force appointed by the District 1 council, as well as by the parks department. The task force later met privately with the foundation’s officers, grilling them on their intentions and drilling out specifics.

On Monday, July 22, the task force and the District 1 council were ready to introduce the group to the community with a unanimous recommendation.

Sandy Rosbacka from the task force said it was a long process, but with an agreeable resolution.

The Sanneh Foundation “fits with what we wanted” in terms of their kid-first philosophy, Rosbacka said.

Clara Ware, who served on the task force and has a grandson who goes to the rec center, said that overall she was optimistic about the partnership.

“The district council did an excellent job,” she said, and “the community stepped up.”

Tony Sanneh, retired pro soccer player and founder of the organization, stood before a crowd of about 50 in the Conway gymnasium to give his pitch and answer questions from residents.

Among those in attendance were city council member Kathy Lantry, parks and rec director Mike Hahm and deputy director Kathy Korum, as well as various conginencies of local residents.

A focus on learning

“We feel like we’re being invited into the community,” Sanneh told the crowd.

He described the fast-growing foundation’s free youth programming, including soccer activities, anti-racism courses, and college readiness instruction, to name a few. The group has dozens of individual programs throughout the Twin Cities.

The organization does “whatever it is to get (kids) into the classroom,” he said.

He said the plan is to transition gradually into the space, keeping much of the existing programming at the rec center, at least to start.

“We’re not coming here to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s best for the kids; we’re going to do what’s best for the community.”

Piquing the interest of community members, Sanneh told the crowd that he’d plan on keeping the rec center open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the goal of having weekend hours as well. Currently, the center’s hours are listed as 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, with no weekend hours.

The foundation will pay rent on the facility and likely be responsible for most of the maintenance, Sanneh said.

Programming worries

After the pitch, the meeting was opened up to questions.

Community members voiced concerns about the future of the programming they use.

Rosbacka said she was concerned about the continuation of the rec center’s youth football and basketball programs.

John Reagan, who helps run a football program based at the rec center, shared Rosbacka’s concerns.

But despite his worries over the future of the football program at Conway, he said, “this is a win for the East Side.”

Tom Baran has been coming to the rec center for over 20 years to do senior-oriented workout programs, he said. He’s mostly concerned with the senior programming, but overall, his fears were assuaged.

Sanneh assured seniors that the programming for baby boomers and retirees shouldn’t face any cuts.

Rosbacka said she hopes people will put individual concerns aside, and look at the big picture of the center.

“I’m really hoping we can be all in,” she said, explaining the community should either be 100% committed or not at all.

Sanneh said he hoped to have an evenhanded approach to hosting community activities.

“In the end, we’re going to have to look at every program objectively,” Sanneh said. “I hope that as we move in there that it stays about the kids, and that people don’t take anything personally.”

Betsy Leach, executive director for the District 1 council, said that her concerns and reservations about the partnership have largely been resolved.

“It seemed like it was a really positive response from the community,” she said. “Their concerns seemed to be addressed.”

Residents are “excited enough about the possibilities that they’re waiting on the details,” she added.

Those details will unfurl slowly, over the course of the first year.

Privatization

Conway is one of many of the city’s rec centers moving away from city-run programs. Two other East Side centers have already made the transition away from city services: Eastview and Highwood Hills.

Kathy Korum, deputy director for the parks department, said the cutting of recreation services and turning over some rec centers to private enterprises is due to a persistent lack of funding. It’s been over a decade of flat or reduced budgets, she said.  In the 1970s, the city operated about 50 rec centers -- now it’s closer to half that.

Leach said that Conway’s process turned out better than it began.

“A lot of the skepticism came from the way we moved into the process,” she explained, referring to the way the privatization proposal caught the community off guard initially.

“This is certainly much, much better than what we have been experiencing,” she said. “To have somebody who gets the fact that partnering with the community and not just partnering with the city is a real possibility is just amazing.”

Korum said the parks department will continue to staff Conway with at least a couple of part-time workers for the first year Sanneh Foundation is in there. It could end up being longer; it just depends on how the details of the contract are worked out.

The Conway building takes up an entire city block just north of the Sun Ray Shopping Center. The 8,200 square foot building has a large gym, a fitness room, a classroom and meeting spaces. Surrounding the center on 21.5 acres are ball fields, tennis courts, a basketball court, a new play area and splash pad, and passive-use areas.

Sanneh said the whole process has “been pretty taxing.” But, “some of it is encouraging,” he added.

“You start to think about what could be there,” and how the programming could grow, he said. “I think the process will help me push myself and the organization and not just be run of the mill.”

He acknowledged that some residents are still nervous moving forward.

“Change is uncertain, and I think that’s the part people worry about.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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