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By Mike Allen
February 18, 2019 (Santee) -- Santee’s City Council affirmed that a new community center serving senior citizens and teens is still a top priority and that the best site is just east of the Cameron YMCA.
But the long-planned project won’t include room for a much-needed new library, the council decided. The five-member body voted 4-1 on Feb. 13, with Mayor John Minto opposed, to put the center on a 40,000 square foot parcel that takes up about half of an existing parking lot serving the community park and the YMCA.
Minto believes the three-phase project should have room for a new library. “We need to make sure we have the biggest, best facility here…. and that it includes a library,” Minto said.  He added that the city should continue looking at other potential sites before committing to the one called River View, so named because of its proximity to the San Diego River.
The other potential site in front of the YMCA, labeled Lawn Site, had fewer  parking spaces and views that are not as good. But the River View will also be more costly, according to the study done by KTUA for the city.
KTUA’s analysis noted a community center had been planned by city officials as far back as 1986, and that a third possible site was on property next to the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility off Magnolia Avenue. The preferred site is on land owned by the city of Santee.
Estimated costs for the first phase of the center, a 12,500 square foot, two story building, was between $8.8 million to $13.5 million including 25 percent contingency. For the total buildout for three phases, the estimate was between $33.3 million and $53.9 million.
Bill Maertz, Santee’s community services director, in his report on the project, said the money to construct the project would come from grants and development fees, but that “bonds and other funding sources would likely need to considered to implement future phases of community center construction.”
“As far as the money goes...we’ve just got to find it. We just gotta make it happen,” said Councilman Stephen Houlahan, but there was little discussion about where those funds would come from.
Minto said it was unlikely the center would be built anytime soon. “Even if we don’t get it built next year, we might be able to get it built in the next several years,” he noted.
Several speakers from the public urged the council to incorporate a library into the project. The current library, operated by the county, has about 9,000 square feet and is far smaller than most every other county branch library. It’s also deficient in meeting space and computers that similar-sized communities have.
Councilman Rob McNelis said while he’d love to have a library included in the center, the priority adopted by the Council two years ago specifically designated it would be for seniors and teens. “It’s never going to be everything for everybody but if we can get the most bang for our buck...that should be what our priority should be,” he said.
Councilwoman Laura Koval said the city should look at creating a public-private partnership along the lines of the Sportsplex USA arrangement at Town Center Community Park. That privately-operated complex brings in thousands of visitors coming to use the facilities, and provided positive tax dollars to Santee’s coffers. She also suggested finding wealthy donors who might be enticed by getting their names on the center.
Councilman Rob McNelis noted that the city was going to have to figure out how to get money for the center without the use of redevelopment financing, which was used by other cities to build similar community centers. The state ended the practice several years ago, making it far more difficult to build new capital projects.

According to the KTUA’s study, the center’s second phase of about 13,600 square feet would include a banquet facility, multi-purpose meeting rooms, and outdoor amenities. The final phase would include a gymnasium with an indoor walking/ jogging track. The estimated annual cost for operating the community center was $271,000.
Addressing another of the top priorities of the City Council, the body considered the hiring of a consulting firm to help create a brand to market Santee.
After hearing a presentation from North Star Destination Strategies, several speakers said they supported the effort, and that it should include confronting negative perceptions about the city.
Patti LaBouff said the city’s past included a reputation for discrimination in housing, intolerance, and in some cases, overt racism.
Evelyn Andrade-Heymsfield, an unsuccessful candidate for Santee City Council, said, “It’s no secret that Santee has the nickname ‘Klantee.’ My family is relatively new here, and while we do feel welcomed, we have experienced racism.”
McNelis, who defeated Andrade-Heymsfield in the 2018 election for District 1, said many cities suffer with derogatory nicknames, and that it doesn’t apply to Santee anymore. “That’s not us, and it’s not been us for a lot of years,” he said.
According to the report on the branding proposal, the branding process would entail four phases: education and research; insights and strategy; creativity and an action plan. The cost for the first three phases was $80,000, while the fourth phase, which was optional, would cost $12,000.
John Dadian, an employee of Cook + Schmid, a San Diego public relations firm, said before the council approved the contract with Tennessee based North Star, it should consider hiring a local firm to do the same work because they were more qualified, and more accessible.
After some discussion, the council voted to continue the issue for another 30 days to hear from the local firm.
Santee’s city manager, Marlene Best, and its attorney, Shawn Hagerty, said the city was not required to solicit through an open bidding process on the contract. But several councilmembers said they wanted to see what the other firm could do.