A premature freeze can destroy a year's citrus crop in rural Tulare County, leaving thousands of people without work. In the small city of Lindsay, where four out of five wage earners work the fields, the frost of 2006 sent the great majority of those workers into the ranks of the "freeze displaced," to borrow a local phrase.
The response of officials in this city of 11,000 people was a seat-of-the-pants job-creation program modeled after the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) of the 1930s. To employ idled workers, city officials conceived a set of public projects, including new housing, a library and athletic fields for the local high school. The most novel of these projects, however, was the conversion of an empty fruit-packing plant into McDermont Field House, a 172,000-square-foot, $14 million sports and fitness complex.
The concept behind McDermont Field House took root in 2004, when Lindsay officials visited New York City for a conference on economic development. Among other places, officials toured Chelsea Piers, a 30-acre sports and entertainment complex on the lower Manhattan waterfront. On the site of former cruise-ship piers stand new buildings containing basketball courts, a full-sized soccer field, two skating rinks and much else.
When the officials came back to Lindsay, as Brad Albert, assistant manager of McDermont Field House, tells the story, one council member drove by the old McDermont fruit-packing plant, empty since the 1990s, and said, "That's our Chelsea Piers." City Manager Scot Townsend, who would become a prime mover of the adaptive-reuse project, was apparently so interested in the potential of the abandoned building that he broke into it one day with a flashlight to see how the place laid out.
The underlying purpose of the project, beyond providing badly needed facilities for indoor sports in a working-class community, was to provide jobs for the local unemployed, according to Albert.
"Our whole thing was to develop jobs for freeze displaced workers," Albert said. "Instead of food vouchers and rental assistance, let them earn money."
With few resources, the city demonstrated how much could be achieved without the use of actual money. Within a year, the city acquired the building and surrounding land through a property trade. To clean up the site and remove old machinery, the city hired prison labor from a minimum-security facility, Mountain Home, located in nearby Springville.
The financing of the project is a case study in aggregating money from different sources, each earmarked for a particular purpose. Money comes from a patchwork of federal, state and local sources. Of the $14 million total, the city contributed $2 million directly from its general fund – a bold step, given that the amount is more than half the city's annual general fund budget. The city's redevelopment agency will contribute $460,000 during the first two years of operation. That sum, in essence, is the cost of operating McDermont for that time period. City officials anticipate that the facility will be self-sustaining after that. The state Department of Housing and Community Development contributed another $2 million of federal job-creation funds to the project, with the goal of providing full-time work to 72 people. (Currently, 83 people are working full-time at McDermont, according to the city.) The remainder of the money, according to City Clerk Kenneth Walker, comes from grants of various sizes, ranging from $25,000 to $150,000. For example, the Integrated Waste Management Board provided a $25,000 grant for using sustainable materials in the project. The project used no bond financing and is debt-free.
The basketball courts and an arcade, built within the shell of the original building, opened last fall. Currently, the city is building a three-story tower atop the building for additional attractions, including a rock-climbing wall, exercise equipment and volleyball courts. Laser tag can be found in the basement. Completion of the addition is expected in October.
While McDermont was modeled after Chelsea Piers, the building is arguably a new kind of public facility: Essentially, it is an indoor sports park, with regulation-size basketball, volleyball and a full-size soccer field. (Previously, the nearest full-size soccer field was in Fresno, an hour's drive away.) Officials expect these facilities to become a hub of league sports for both children and adults.
At the same time, city officials are outfitting McDermont with many high-tech attractions, including several to be leased out to private operators, such as a rock-climbing wall, a mechanical wave machine for simulated surfing and exercise games projected on large video monitors, to help combat the high level of childhood obesity in the city. An animated orange with a big smile, operated by an unseen puppeteer, will greet visitors as they enter McDermont (no kidding). Even if animated oranges might make some people cringe, the business model seems defensible: One child can play volleyball, while another lingers in the arcade and mom relaxes with a Diet Coke while chatting with a friend.
What is most interesting about this facility, and what other observers might think foolhardy, is that the city, rather than a private developer, was the developer of McDermont Field House. Moreover, the city remains the owner and operator. If Lindsay had taken the conventional route of hiring a developer, however, it may well have shared the experience of other cities who hired developers to build public facilities subsidized by private real estate, only to watch the public amenities shrink in size or disappear from the project altogether as "unfeasible."
By remaining in control of the project, Lindsay has delivered both jobs and a facility in which the public purpose is central. Out of the failure of the orange crop, Lindsay has grown an alternative crop of public works, at a level of risk-tolerance and creativity that may have intimidated larger cities with far bigger budgets. But as they say, necessity is a mother.