Conway private partner gets the go ahead

The private partner for the Conway Recreation Center, the Sanneh Foundation, has begun its transition into the facility. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Tony Sanneh, founder of the Sanneh Foundation, met with community members at the Conway Rec Center in July to introduce the organization. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

After a long process, the private partner for Conway Rec Center, the Sanneh Foundation, has the official go ahead at Conway Recreation Center.

The Sanneh Foundation had originally hoped to have a contract in place with St. Paul by Sept. 1. That was delayed by contract negotiations and city processes.

But on Wednesday, Nov. 20, the contract was approved by the city council.

“We’re excited to get to know the community better and serve more kids,” said Tony Sanneh, the company’s founder.

Betsy Leach, director of the District 1 community council, said the contract approval has come as a relief.

The drawn out contract negotiation process had left community members itching to know what things will be like with a private partner, she said. “Everyone is ready to move ahead.”

The foundation was the only group to respond to a request for proposals the parks department issued in March to find a private partner. From there, Sanneh Foundation’s proposal was reviewed by a community task force appointed by the District 1 council, as well as by the parks department. The task force later met privately with the foundation’s officers, grilling them on their intentions and drilling out specifics, before giving them the o.k. and introducing them to the community in July.

The move to privatize Conway comes from a persistent lack of city funding — There’s been over a decade of flat or reduced budgets at the rec centers.

What now?

Next steps include moving the organization’s office staff into the city building, and hashing out the specifics of what programming will look like for the community.

Since the Sanneh Foundation is a youth-oriented organization, community members were concerned that other programs traditionally held at the rec center would get bumped out. The organization offers free youth programming, including soccer activities, anti-racism courses, and college readiness instruction.

But thus far, things are looking good for the traditional programming, Leach said. She said the community council’s task force, which weighed in on finding a private partner for the rec center, has met with the Sanneh Foundation to coordinate the group’s transition into Conway. These meetings have left the group feeling optimistic, she said.

Tod Herskovitz, who’s managing Conway for the Sanneh Foundation, said senior programming will be in place as is until at least June.

And Sanneh added that the organization has met with football and basketball groups that operate out of Conway, and have come to an understanding.

It is, however, still early. Eric Thompson, supervisor for St. Paul Parks and Rec’s eastern facilities, said as of yet, the organization is “trying to get a feel for it.”

“From where I’m sitting, they really haven’t gotten started,” he said. “We’re still trying to wait and see how they’re going to balance the recreation needs of the community (with their own programming).”

St. Paul Parks and Rec staff will remain working part-time in the building through 2014.

Improvements already

Sanneh also noted that it was still early in the process.

“We’re still in transition,” he said, “but we’re starting to connect more and more with the community.”

Herskovitz noted the organization just recently added weekend hours, which makes for a large increase in the number of hours the center is open. Starting Saturday, Nov. 23, the rec center has been open from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Previously, the facility was not open on the weekends.

The organization plans to eventually expand those hours both during the weekdays and weekends, with a goal of being open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, as opposed to the current 3 to 8 p.m.

Herskovitz said the transition will take anywhere from six months to a year before things are fully in place.

While initial prospects are good, Thompson said it remains to be seen whether the private partnership between the city and Sanneh Foundation will work out long-term.

“This is new to everybody and we’re not going to know whether it’s working at all (until things get started),” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Conway Rec may offer free public internet

Tod Herskovitz, who is managing Conway for the Sanneh Foundation, said one complication for the group moving into the rec center completely is that there’s not adequate internet access in the building.

As it stands, the place is wired for a government line, which the Sanneh Foundation staff can’t access.

But, the group has been working with Comcast to find a solution, and may have found one -- Comcast will donate $3,000 worth of wiring and labor to get the place up to speed.

Following, there should be public internet access available throughout the building, Herskovitz said.


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