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Proposed takeover of Leisure Square by nonprofit unlikely

Photo of Leisure Square

A possible suitor interested in converting the city-owned Leisure Square recreational facility into a privately operated enterprise has been shooed away by protests from parents and kids involved in Vero Beach recreation programs, but a majority of the City Council is still seeking ways to run the center more efficiently.

Councilman Val Zudans last month convinced his colleagues to hold off on a vote to approve a six-figure repair job on the bathrooms, showers and locker rooms because he thought he could broker a deal with a nonprofit to come in, lease Leisure Square long-term and assume management, taking over the expense of maintaining the aging building, and staffing and marketing the classes, camps, swimming pool and fitness facilities.

Zudans mentioned that a Vero foundation that has been very successful at raising funds might be interested in such a deal. That statement, which Zudans now says was made off-handedly, stirred up a petition drive and protest that packed City Council chambers on Feb. 20.

In the process, the Live Like Cole Foundation, created by family and friends of the late Cole Coppolla, inadvertently got caught in the crosshairs of the controversy. The ire Zudans’ comments sparked among summer campers, gymnastics students and parents seems to have spooked the organization, and killed the idea of a public-private partnership with the city at Leisure Square.

Dozens of people showed up to argue that people who use Leisure Square don’t want anything to change. The staff, camp counselors and students are “a big family,” they said, pleading with council members not to break up that family.

"The facility is used a lot," said former councilman Ken Daige. "Your staff is doing a stellar job there."

Daige reminded the council that Vero Beach voters protected Leisure Square in the city charter, saying it cannot be sold without a referendum.

Recreation Director Rob Slezak pointed out how in-demand Leisure Square and the Center Stage programs are, and urged the city to weigh more than the bottom line when looking at the cost of recreation programs. Don’t disregard the intrinsic benefit to the community, he said, and the future civic and business leaders that graduate through Leisure Square camps and instruction.

Councilman Tony Young echoed the concerns voiced by the public and emphasized the value of Leisure Square for the greater good of the community.

"The decision to stop the RFP that was submitted and not move forward, I think is a mistake," Young said, asking the council to go ahead and vote to award a contract for the Leisure Square repairs.

Zudans said there’s been a big misunderstanding about the council’s action postponing the award of the contract to Bill Bryant Construction to remodel the locker rooms and bathrooms.

“All the people here who are here . . . you think that someone is taking your gymnastics away,” Zudans said. “That is the opposite of the intention here. The intention was to find someone in the community who is willing to do a bunch of fundraising to improve the overall quality of the facilities, the entire place.”

Camp, swimming, fitness and other fees for adults, youth and seniors have been increased over the past decade, but not enough to completely offset the overhead. Leisure Square students and parents claim they cannot afford to enroll kids in private camps or gymnastics programs. They also say the sense of family and camaraderie at other facilities just isn’t the same as among the stalwart group that works all year to produce Vero’s renowned Aerial Antics Circus each August – the recreation department’s showcase event.

Recreation employees, if they are full time or work enough hours throughout the year to qualify, are on the city health plan. Permanent fulltime personnel are also on the city pension plan. It’s unclear how many of the 19 fulltime and seven part-time employees would be needed should Vero ultimately decide to shed the responsibility for managing Leisure Square.

In the current fiscal year which ends on Sept. 30, Vero is set to spend $2.2 million on all recreational programs and facilities.

With the issue of repairs –  with the possible exception of the restrooms –  on hold, Vero is still ready to entertain proposals for innovative ways to keep all the benefits of Leisure Square while shedding some of the cost.

The city also is interested in proposals from people and companies who might be interested in taking over managing the Vero Beach City Marina, which taxpayers subsidize most years with dollars from property taxes.

There’s no doubt that the city wants the marina amenity, but Zudans and others think it could be run better and cheaper if taken out of the hands of government. For example, Zudans said a nonprofit or a commercial business could most likely get the needed repairs done cheaper than the City of Vero Beach’s procurement process.