On May 3rd, at a special session of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, the fate of the Mary Siah Recreation Center was decided, at least for now. In case you hadn’t heard, the center was put on the chopping block because deferred maintenance and needed repairs were more of a burden than the Assembly wanted to bare. The solution put forth was to demolish the building and focus on a bond measure to fund a brand new aquatic center. As the building is less than 40 years old and built with cutting-edge practices, people questioned the motivation behind this hasty decision. What was likely just a difficult budget decision, came off as an attack on the citizens of the community.
A community asset
People young and old use the facility as part of their healthy lifestyles. People would be left high and dry if and until another facility is built. As it came out in the vigorous public comment, the healing waters, particularly of the Mary Siah pool, are an essential part of the quality of life people expect. Armed with towels, signs, petitions, and whistles the people organized the Friends of Mary Siah group and took to the streets; winning the day with people power.
Unanimously, the facility was funded for another year.
That, however, is not the whole story. Some think the meeting schedule was set to conflict with the GVEA annual members meeting to avoid public outcry of their rampant deployment of the 5G Smart Meters. Others believed the mayor was pushing an agenda to get his name on the new aquatic center. Haters are always going to hate but the lack of transparency, misinformation, and the generally cavalier attitude about fast tracking the bulldozer left many so upset they couldn’t attend because they didn’t want to lose their cool. After some debate, the decision was made to fund the operation of the facility for six months to a year. It was a surprise to many, including Victor Siah, the nephew of Mary Siah who worked as a community activist and for who the building is named.
I caught up with Victor on the phone and captured a few of his thoughts and observations to share. Victor first learned about the dilemma from his wife who received a call from the Mayor which essentially served as noticed the building was going to be closed and torn down. They were given a number to call if they had any have questions. Questions turned into research and the findings Victor says were “disturbing”. For one, why was the Borough claiming the building was sixty years old when 39 years ago the building was rebuilt from the foundation up? Why did they call for a demolition report when a seismic study and repair was the logical next step? Why was the building, prior to this knowledge, already removed from the FY2019 budget? Even compassionate to the tough budget situation the Borough is facing, the move seemed rash and with a “one track mind” on the best course of action, that ignored the needs of the community. That decision by the Borough left only one thing to do. Spurred on by his friend Jimmi; Victor and another friend Mikki, together organized the Friends of Mary Siah “movement” and they began meeting every Tuesday from 4-5pm in the Mary Siah Recreational Center conference room.
Friends of Mary Siah
They continue to meet because while the May 3rd decision was a victory for grassroots community organizing, it was only a small battle in a long-term war. The essential questions of revenue vs. costs (which all families struggle with) are multiplied by 100,000 at the Borough level. The Friends continue to organize and fundraise to as Victor puts it “help them as we can to keep things afloat”. The effort now has a Facebook group set up and they are planning the full gambit of fundraising activities. One of the short-term goals for consideration is the $5000 needed to repair the much-beloved sauna, which has been broken for some time.
Want to become involved find out how at
Friends of Mary Siah Recmreation Center on Facebook