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Most support community center

In today's troubled economic climate, Cottage Grove can't afford to plan, let alone build, a community center, city council candidate Tom Dippel said last week at the League of Women Voters-sponsored Cottage Grove City Council and Mayor Forum, the lone candidate to stand against the much talked-about building.

The other four council candidates present --Derrick Lehrke, Justin Olsen, Jen Peterson and Chris Reese -- as well as mayoral candidates Fred Luden and Myron Bailey said they would support at least laying out a blueprint for what the community center would include and seeking possible public-private partnerships.

Talk of a possible community center has been tossed around for years, and has emerged as a major issue during election season after a community survey last winter showed strong support from residents for such a facility.

Peterson, the most ardent supporter of a community center among the seven candidates for city office, said there is a "desperate need" for it. She doesn't believe the city's tight budget or the coming economic recession should necessarily prevent Cottage Grove from moving forward with the project.

But even with private sector help or federal grants -- both of which Peterson said should be utilized -- Dippel said he doesn't believe the community center is a possibility right now.

"We can't afford to be spending any extra money on things that aren't necessary," Dippel said during the forum held at Cottage Grove City Hall. "Our money needs to be going to maintenance and infrastructure, as boring as that sounds."

Council candidate Chris Reese disagreed, saying the recession presents an opportunity for the city to lay out a vision for when the economy rebounds.

"While we're in tough economic times, it doesn't mean you can stop planning for the future and that's what I want to do," Reese said. The city, school district and athletic association should begin collaborating to determine what a community center should encompass, "then when we're in better economic times, bring it up for a referendum."

During his campaign, Lehrke has championed "holding the line" on city spending, but has said he supports a community center if "some kind of public-private partnership can be worked out so there's a minimal cost to the taxpayer."

Olsen also said he believes a public-private partnership would be the best route and that planning, which he says could be a two-year process, needs to begin now if the city wants to be ready when the economy picks up.

Both mayoral candidates agree the city would be well served by a community center and both also agree voters should decide the issue on a referendum. But while Bailey said the city should move forward aggressively with the planning, Luden sounded a more cautious note.

"We need to be careful as we go forward if we're going to take on any more debt," he said at the forum, "because that'll have an impact on what your taxes will be."

Jon Avise can be reached at