The numbers are, well, choose your cliché — eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping. Other body parts reacting badly might also be cited.
Yes, a consulting firm’s cost estimates to build and operate a replacement for Twisp’s outdated Wagner Memorial Pool are a tad scary. More to the point, the estimates are realistic and ultimately should not be surprising. Given enough time, they might even be low. So we’d better got used to that, and get over it quickly, if the community’s desires and preferences in a new pool are to be met.
As reporter Ann McCreary’s story notes on page A1 of this week’s edition, community sentiment expressed at a recent public forum overwhelmingly supports construction of an indoor swimming facility to replace the 55-year-old Wagner Pool, which is owned and operated by the Town of Twisp. Ballard*King Associates, the consulting firm leading a feasibility study for a new pool in the Methow Valley, was hired by local nonprofit Fiends of the Pool, which is spearheading a campaign to replace the pool. The consultant’s work was made possible by a gift from an anonymous fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, which supports community-based philanthropic causes.
The consultants offered three alternative plans, one for an outdoor pool and two for indoor facilities. Construction cost estimates ranged from $6.8 million to $24.3 million. The lowest-end estimate would be higher than construction costs for any of the major construction projects now underway in the valley: the new Winthrop library, the new Twisp civic building, and the new Okanogan County Fire District 6 fire hall.
Yet no one who expressed an opinion favored the outdoor alternative. That’s not surprising either, in that such a major investment should be viewed as a year-round resource with broad community support and participation. Maybe the term “replacing” is not adequate to the concept, as it may suggest simply duplicating the Wagner. Clearly, the community wants an upgrade.
As McCreary’s story notes, the consultants are still analyzing cost factors and possibilities for raising capital funds, including the feasibility of establishing a special recreation district that would levy property taxes to support the pool’s construction and operation — tasks that are likely beyond the Town of Twisp’s ability to tackle alone.
The cost estimates suggest that, even if a recreation district is approved by local voters, a major capital campaign will be necessary to identify and solicit the kinds of donors — major foundations, for instance — that could provide the baseline funding on which to develop a fundraising effort.
Swimming pools are complicated and operationally exacting. Mechanically, they require close attention and constant maintenance. Then there is the human factor: finding, training and keeping lifeguards has always been a challenge, and users’ safety most come foremost. The projected operating cost shortfalls in the consultants’ study are daunting, aside from the expense of building the facility, especially on a year-round basis.
Every summer for years, the community has awaited word on when the pool would open, when the precocious Methow Valley Killer Whale swim team members could start churning practice strokes, when we might expect to see fellow lap-swimmers at the early morning sessions. We’ll be asking those questions soon, as summer 2022 approaches. In more recent seasons, the questions have become more complicated and frustrating: What repairs are necessary? How much will they cost, and where will that money come from? Will the town be able to find enough lifeguards? Over the years, Friends of the Pool has raised and given more than $400,000 for repairs and operating expenses. Without that help, would the pool still be in operation?
For the past few years, more questions have been piled on: What about COVID, fire, smoke and weather conditions? The pandemic and other out-of-our-control factors have put a dramatic dent in the pool’s operations, in addition to the usual challenges of making sure the facility is good to go.
In the best-case scenario, we are several years away from the ultimate solution, which raises another big question: What if the Wagner deteriorates to the point where it can’t be safely operated in the mean time, or the operational challenges become too difficult? Do we want to contemplate going without a beloved community resource for any extended amount of time?
So maybe it’s not melodramatic to characterize the pool replacement dilemma as “urgent,” or as urgent as we can make it considering what has to happen before the first swimmer cuts a wake in a new pool. Friends of the Pool is doing its part, for the benefit of us all. It’s time for the community to not only make its preferences known, but also to step up with meaningful commitment. It’s the only way a new pool will happen.