Pursuing a ‘bigger vision’ for valley’s swimmers
Most full-time valley residents know the origin story: In 1966, after a local boy drowned in the Methow River, Ernst and Katherine Wagner dedicated themselves to providing a safe environment where all valley residents could learn to swim.
Funded by the Wagners, the Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp opened in 1967, and since then has welcomed thousands of valley children for swim lessons and swim team competition, as well as scores of pool users swimming laps, participating in water aerobics, and socializing on the pool deck.
But the pool’s legacy could come to a screeching halt after the 2023 season if, after more than a half-century of service, the pool is not replaced.
The Wagner Memorial Pool’s annual operation is funded by four sources: about $3,500 in revenue from pool users and donors (9%); $7,500 from annual fundraising by the nonprofit group Friends of the Pool (20%); about $11,000 from the Town of Twisp’s general fund, which comes from taxes paid by residents (30%); and $15,000 annually from the Wagner Fund, established by the Wagners for the pool’s ongoing operations (41%).
The largest of those — the Wagner Fund — will be depleted by 2024. The fund was never intended to last in perpetuity; the principal was invested in a way that annual payouts would cease after a number of years. Because the stock market did well, the fund has lasted longer than was originally anticipated.
In anticipation of the impending shortfall, Friends of the Pool quietly embarked on the process of ensuring a reliable pool for the community’s swimming future last year. In 2020, the organization has accelerated its efforts.
Called the Big Splash, the process is “a community visioning, planning and building campaign to construct a new, 21st Century pool for the Methow Valley,” said Friends of Pool board chair Sarah Schrock.
The Big Splash has several phases, starting with the First Wave: a needs assessment and visioning process. Throughout the fall, Friends of the Pool has been gathering input from pool stakeholders in individual and small group meetings, speaking with open swimmers, lap swimmers, swim team leadership, past and present pool employees, swim lesson parents and kids, water aerobicizers, and other pool users.
Once these information-gathering sessions are complete, Friends of the Pool will approach community groups like the Eagles, Kiwanis, the schools, the Methow Valley Senior Center and the churches to solicit input.
“We’ve determined that there is a need,” said Schrock, “and now we need to flesh out the strategy.”
That may include exploring the possibility of a park district. The state allows for several types of park districts, all with property taxing authority if approved by voters.
A 2014 metropolitan park district proposal in the Methow Valley was rejected by local voters, 78% to 22%, due to a variety of concerns. Tonasket residents voted to establish a Park and Recreation District in 2015 to maintain existing city parks as well as what would be the new community swimming pool, after a volunteer group raised nearly $1 million to build it.
“We’d certainly consider a rec district as an option,” said Schrock, “if our local community were invested in the idea.”
As with any such facility, the Wagner Memorial Pool has required its fair share of repairs over the past two decades. A remodel in 2000 added the zero-entry beach into the kiddy pool, a larger pool deck, a big slide and kiddy slide, water jets, and a resurfacing of the entire pool. In 2016, the outer plaster was resurfaced, cracks were stapled, and gutters were restructured.
The pool’s deteriorating condition, and how to keep it functional, have been discussed at many Twisp Town Council meetings over the past several years as the end of the Wagner Fund support drew closer (full disclosure — Schrock’s husband, Hans Smith, is a Town Council member). The Public Works Department has spent untold hours and whatever funds were available to keep the pool operating, and Public Works Director Andrew Denham said it could have operated this year — but for COVID restrictions.
Recent repairs, however, have simply been short-term solutions to keeping the pool operational one more season at a time. A 2019 third-party facility condition assessment determined that substantial upgrades are needed beyond the ongoing repairs that have been necessitating regular fundraising efforts.
This isn’t the first time the pool has been in danger of closing. In 2005, the pool’s condition jeopardized the swimming season but was saved by a community fundraising effort led by Methow Valley residents Russ Thomas and Patty Yates, who garnered $40,000 in community support. That threat to the pool’s continuation inspired the formation of Friends of the Pool. Another community fundraising effort provided the $184,000 needed for the 2016 repairs.
Both fundraising campaigns validated Methow Valley residents’ investment in the pool as a community resource. But at some point — and Friends of the Pool believes that this point is now — efforts need to move beyond just fixing the current facility and into thinking more long-term about the Methow Valley’s swimming needs.
It’s not just adults who support an improved pool; the Big Splash has the backing of Methow Valley youth as well. Said Maisy Shaw, the youth representative to Friends of the Pool and Methow Valley Killer Whales swim team member since 2008, “The pool provides a space for kids to come together and exercise, it brings people together.”
Shaw, a Liberty Bell High School junior, speaks with passion about her 12 years of swim team. “It provides lessons on teamwork and friendship. It unites different age groups, as older kids help with younger kids’ pods and support them at races,” she said.
“It was a little shocking not to have swim team this summer — I realized, ‘this is what life is like without swim team, without access to the pool,’” Shaw said.
Shaw is working on a social media component to get the word out to valley youth. “We’re going to have an Instagram page and other social media presence,” she said. “I’m gathering youth to rally around this cause and weigh in on what they envision for the pool.”
Now is the time
Could the pool just limp along indefinitely with an annual roster of repairs? No, said Schrock. As last year’s facility condition assessment confirmed, “we need to bring the pool into current codes and standards.” But beyond that, Schrock said, it’s time to consider a bigger vision for the pool — one that might include year-round swimming options or an adjacent recreation center, sports courts, or other facilities.
“This facility has served us well for more than half a century,” said Schrock, “but we’re growing as a community, and just replacing what we have now might not be the best thing to do. What type of swimming facility will serve our community best into the 21st century?”
Regardless of the final plan for the pool’s future, Friends of the Pool knows that “it’s going to take a lot of funding, not just the capital expense of the facility, but for the long-term operational expenses, which are what we need to get secured,” said Schrock, “especially in light of the Wagner Fund ending.”
Friends of the Pool is an all-volunteer organization, and projects like feasibility studies aren’t cheap. So the organization is raising funds — through Give Methow and other sources — to cover the overhead for the planning process, which will include a feasibility study focusing on several different types of facility options.
For more information about the Big Splash and Friends of the Pool, visit http://www.foptwisp.org.