Parks board seeks Mac Center solutions

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 13:50
  • The Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center on May 20, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Team members walk laps during the Relay for Life at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center May 20, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

A year after a routine municipal audit revealed more than half a dozen administrative and accounting issues at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center, local park supervisors are still searching for answers to lingering financial questions at the popular Eagle River rec center.

Mandatory monthly reports are missing or incomplete, according to park supervisors. Budget questions remain unanswered. The Chugiak-Eagle River Parks Board of Supervisors discussed those matters and more at a Sept. 11 meeting at the Eagle River Town Center, with an hour of the discussion devoted to the McDonald Center.

“It frustrates me that we don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on,” said parks board chairman Brian Fay. “That is really frustrating to me.”

The Mac Center — owned by the municipality and overseen by the municipal parks board — is managed by the nonprofit Fire Lake Arena Management, Inc. under a sole-source contract first signed more than 30 years ago. The center’s general manager Reid McDonald, son of the center’s namesake, has worked at the facility for 20 years under the direction of the five-member FLAMI board of directors.

In Sept. 2016, a municipal audit revealed a variety of management issues ranging from unapproved expenditures to unmet insurance requirements. When the center ran into a budget deficit that year, it triggered a separate Anchorage Assembly review of the FLAMI management contract. In February, assembly members approved a renewed contract which called for regular review meetings between FLAMI management, municipal officials and local parks supervisors; detailed financial reports delivered monthly; and an expanded FLAMI board of directors, according to a Feb. 14 memo written by former assemblyman Bill Starr.

Seven months later, some of those changes have yet to happen, frustrating park supervisors and municipal officials alike. At its September meeting, the local parks board discussed ways to improve center management and strengthen FLAMI board engagement and oversight.

“It’s just that we don’t trust their financials and the picture they’re trying to present,” said park supervisor Tony Sisto.

Neither McDonald nor any FLAMI board members attended the Sept. 11 park board meeting, which was held the same night the McDonald Center held an open house. McDonald did not respond to a later request for comment. Pat McCormick, FLAMI board president, said he was unaware the board planned to discuss Mac Center management – a standing agenda item since the beginning of the year. McCormick said he did not share the park board’s frustrations and thinks the concerns are overblown.

“They may have some concern about finances, but I’ve been on this (FLAMI) board for 35 years and I have zero concern about finances,” McCormick said. “It’s crazy – it’s just crazy.”

At meetings in July, August and September, park supervisors worried about a first-quarter Mac Center budget deficit, ballooning utility costs, personnel expenses and other financial issues. But McCormick said McDonald “should be getting pats on the back” for his work with the facility. A new adult hockey league co-founded by McDonald earlier this year is expected to earn tens of thousands of dollars for the facility, McCormick said. The facility is clean and the center is beloved by generations of local families, he said.

“Through this whole thing, the product that we produce – the atmosphere for recreating at the Mac Center – is stellar,” McCormick said. “The product is super – that’s what the people need to hear.”

The municipality is currently seeking new ways to market the Eagle River facility, which features an ice rink, turf field, indoor track and community rooms. A recreation specialist employed by the Anchorage parks department has already visited the center, according to park officials.

Meanwhile, park supervisors are looking for ways to add fresh representation to the FLAMI board of directors. McCormick said the nonprofit had yet to add two new directors, despite an April deadline established by the assembly in February. The FLAMI president said he anticipates adding the required new board members by the start of 2018.

Assembly members are expected to review a $20,000 appropriation for the Mac Center later this fall. Chugiak-Eagle River assemblywoman Amy Demboski, a member of the municipal audit committee, said the assembly would ask questions about the new FLAMI board positions and the Mac Center’s marketing plan.

“The goal is, ‘Okay, how do we get ourselves in a position with the Mac Center so this isn’t a perpetual problem?’” she said. “We have to make it at least so we can afford it.”

Demboski said she was optimistic following February meetings with FLAMI directors and Mac Center management, and she didn’t expect every change to happen overnight. While the center faces tough economic conditions and various other factors, it also benefits from local control, Demboski said.

“I really love the fact that the parks and rec board has gotten so proactive in helping manage this solution,” she said. “Fundamentally, Chugiak-Eagle River is in the driver’s seat to make this as successful as they can.”

The issue is expected to resurface in the assembly chambers this fall.

“We’ll get way more into the weeds on this one,” Demboski said.

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