Salt Lake County officials are arguing over a proposal that the county acquire the exclusive, private, 11-acre Canyon Racquet Club - a facility struggling for financial survival - and turn it into a public recreation center. While opinions are divided, the idea has merit.

The Racquet Club is a tennis, racquetball, basketball, swimming complex at 7300 South and Wasatch Boulevard, near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Because of financial problems, the owners are looking to sell. The key question is: Sell to whom?It's a prime location and private developers reportedly are interested. But they undoubtedly would remove the club facilities and replace them with other commercial structures. The owners are willing to sell to the county instead for roughly $2 million - an excellent price considering the land and the recreation facilities. The complex certainly could not be duplicated for anywhere near that amount.

The County Parks and Recreation Division has recommended that the county purchase the complex. But the proposal has split the County Commission 2-1, with Mike Stewart supporting it and Bart Barker and M. Tom Shimizu opposing the idea.

The two commissioners have various concerns. Barker thinks the facility could not break even financially, despite what he calls accounting tricks. He also is against taking the property off the tax rolls.

Shimizu has similar concerns. His primary objection is a philosophical one - opposing government competition with private businesses, especially since private tennis clubs generally are having financial difficulty.

However, if that view were followed to its ultimate conclusion, the county would not have any public recreation facilities at all.

Shimizu also says the complex is not centrally located for valleywide use and turning it into a public facility would cause a concentration of recreation facilities - an odd argument since the southeast part of the valley has complained about the lack of such facilities.

The area from 2100 South to 8000 South, east of State Street, has 250,000 residents, and recreation facilities have been in such short supply that those residents formed a recreation district to finance some of their own parks and such. The county has three recreation centers on the west side of the valley and none on the east side.

The recreation complex may not be central, but it sits next to the I-215 belt route and offers easy access.

The cost figures are attractive, as even Shimizu admits. Recreation officials estimate they could charge fairly low user fees and still take in enough money to pay back the purchase price over several years and cover 80 to 90 percent of operating costs at the same time. Once the loan was repaid, the complex might even turn a profit.

Arguing that county recreation centers must break even would preclude any new facilities. Such centers presently are subsidized. User fees cover about 56 percent of operating costs, with the percentage higher or lower at varying facilities. That's better than most counties anywhere.

Population is going to continue to grow in Salt Lake County. People need public recreation facilities, and there are far too few already. If the Racquet Club is displaced by some commercial development, there will be no way to recover it in the future. It makes sense to seize the opportunity now.