When Superintendent Jim Wagner looks at George Grace Field, he doesn’t just see an empty snow-covered field. He sees potential. He sees what he hopes will be the future.
Call it his field of dreams.
“This community center I am proposing to build on George Grace Field would set us apart from some communities in the state and make us comparable to others,” Wagner said. “It gives Buffalo the opportunity to be a legit contender and to attract visitors from around the state.”
Wagner said his proposed community center could be a major boon for Buffalo. He foresees it housing everything from state swim meets and six-man football championships to pickleball practices and business expos.
“I think this facility would offer something for everybody in the community – whether they are 1-year-old or 100,” Wagner said.
Blueprints for the proposed facility, drafted for free by Legacy Building Solutions, depict a two-story building. Legacy Building Solutions is a South Haven, Minnesota-based business that specializes in manufacturing, designing and installing PVC fabric buildings on rigid steel frames.
The first story is divided into three main sections. The first is a swimming area with an Olympic-size swimming pool that is 82 feet by 164 feet and a diving pool measuring 82 feet by 55 feet. The former could become the new go-to place for local swim meets, according to Wagner. The latter would not only be used for diving competitions but also for children’s swimming lessons and adult water exercise.
The second section is composed of four basketball courts that are 84 feet by 50 feet and surrounded by a walking track. In addition to basketball, the courts could be used for volleyball and pickleball games, Wagner said. They could also host business expos and conventions similar to those currently held at the Bomber Mountain Civic Center.
The third and final section is a turf field that is 196 feet by 340 feet, which can be used to host indoor soccer games, Kaycee six-man football games and golf and baseball practice.
The second floor will include a suspended walking track similar to the one at Buffalo High School, Wagner said.
Wagner isn’t the first to consider building a community recreation center at George Grace Field. The YMCA spearheaded a community recreation center project on the field in 2014 and 2015. School board members at the time were reluctant to give up the field, which was used frequently for middle school track activities.
“Obviously, we would lose a track. We utilize that track a lot, and we put a lot of money into that track. … I would assume we couldn’t just go forward just losing a facility like that without a replacement facility somewhere,” board member Nicole Novotny-Wonka said at the time.
Wagner said that, unlike the Y’s proposed facility, his community center could be used for track activities due to the two tracks included in the facility.
While wanting to meet the health and recreation needs of those in the community, Wagner said, he is equally committed to helping develop the local economy. He foresees people driving from across the state to take part in swim meets, volleyball and basketball tournaments, six-man football championships and conferences in the new facility.
“It is important that we’re proactive and start throwing around these ideas about how we can be economically sustainable,” Wagner said. “Longmire Days has had a major financial impact on this community, but will it still have the same impact 10 or 20 years after the show is off the air? ... This type of facility would generate new revenue streams for Johnson County. And though it is yet to be determined just how much of a financial impact that would be, it is important to embrace the potential for new economic opportunities.”
Wagner said the facility was ambitious and that a brick and mortar building would cost anywhere from $55 million to $90 million. Legacy can construct the building for $20 million, he said, and he hoped to raise $25 million in case of unexpected expenses. The PVC fabric used for Legacy buildings has a 30-year warranty and can be replaced if damaged, Wagner said.
Wagner worked with Legacy on a building in his previous school district in Kimball, Minnesota, and had a great experience, he said.
“The company donated a building to my previous school district on a much smaller scale but with the same type of material,” Wagner said “That winter, the temperature was 35 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of 50 below. To heat an entire 5,000-square-foot building in those temperatures, the furnace only needed to turn on once in over an hour. It’s pretty incredible what these guys can do. It’s very efficient.”
Wagner emphasized that the community center would be a community project with funding sources coming from outside of the school district.
Early in the development process, Wagner contacted Johnson County YMCA CEO Tim Miner. When the facility is completed, Wagner would like the YMCA to manage the new building, which would be located across the street from the existing YMCA.
Miner said he was intrigued by the possibility.
“From the very beginning, our thoughts were that this facility would be perfect for the needs and challenges we currently have as an organization,” Miner said.
The uncertain future of the Y’s aquatics center is at the top of the list, Miner said. The YMCA’s swimming pool is over 40 years old and well past its life expectancy. While the pool hasn’t experienced catastrophic failures, it is only a matter of time, Miner said.
“It is going to fail, and it is likely going to be too expensive for us to repair,” Miner said. “A community center that includes a new aquatics environment where the Y could continue to offer adult fitness classes, swim lessons and other fitness programs would remedy that problem.”
If the community center is built, the YMCA would likely repurpose its current pool space as a fieldhouse, Miner said.
“A new pool would allow us to convert the current aquatic center into more usable space. We could move the weight-lifting equipment and cardio machines into the space and add additional fitness equipment that we currently can’t accommodate,” Miner said. “That would allow for the current weight room and cardio room to be redesigned as a fitness space for yoga, barre and other low-impact classes we’d love to offer.”
The new center would also help with overcrowding on the Y’s basketball courts, Miner said.
“Court time is always limited this time of year,” Miner said. “The access to additional courts would allow us to run more games at one time, accommodate more teams and probably free up some gym space here at the main Y for other gym activities including pickleball, volleyball and general open gym time. It would be nice to have the extra space.”
All in all, the community center could be an asset for the YMCA, Miner said.
“Since I came on board, my mantra has been ‘bloom where we’re planted’ and that involves finding solutions to current problems,” Miner said. “A new community center with an aquatics environment and gym space would solve a lot of our existing challenges at the Y.”
The current focus of the project is finding the funding, Wagner said. Wagner has raised over $1 million in private donations, and he will pursue other funding sources including money from foundations and grant dollars.
“Right now, I am just informing different groups about the project and looking into various funding sources,” Wagner said. “We are a long way from building at this point.”
After securing the money, Wagner will need to meet with the city and county to see if they approve construction on George Grace Field. Wagner’s backup plan is to build on the soccer fields next to Buffalo High School.
Where the money will come from and where the facility will be located isn’t the only question that should be answered, according to Rick Myers, board member of JOCO First. JOCO First operates the Bomber Mountain Civic Center, which includes two basketball courts and conference space. The organization brings in roughly $7,500 a year through rental of the gyms, Myers said.
“At the end of the day, that’s a pretty small part of our budget,” Myers said. “But it does raise a question. The Bomber Mountain Civic Center is a community center. Now we have Jim’s project. I believe the community wants and needs a community center. We just don’t have the population or revenue sources for every organization to have their own facility. We need to figure out how to pull these efforts together and create a single facility that meets the community’s needs.”
Miner said there are many questions that need to be answered as the community center project moves forward. And it’s important for the community to have those discussions.
“A community center that can meet the needs of the community organizations collectively would be fantastic,” Miner said. “Defining all those needs up front is imperative, and it will take an active dialogue to get there. It’s easy to dismiss the idea of a project of this magnitude based solely on cost, the scope, or even its location, but I think the conversation needs to start with how it could serve the greatest number of organizations and have the most impact on the members of the community. At the end of the day, it is always worthwhile to work through the process, consider the impact community-wide, and have an open discussion with as many people as possible. A new community center would certainly be a benefit to many in Johnson County, including the Y. If the community agrees, starting to work through the details would be the next step.”