Would support new indoor, year-round swimming facility
Proponents of year-round swimming in the Methow Valley want to give local voters a chance to decide if they favor creating a special taxing district to support a new indoor aquatics center.
A petition drive is gathering signatures to put a proposition on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would create a “Methow Aquatics District.” Supporters of a new aquatics facility have been working since May to gather enough signatures by an Aug. 1 deadline to qualify the measure for the fall election.
Getting the proposition on the ballot, and getting approval from voters, is essential if the vision of an indoor swimming facility is to become reality, said Justin Porter, a board member of Friends of the Pool, the nonprofit organization that is spearheading efforts to build an aquatics facility.
“The thing that is certain is that without this district, there will be no aquatics facility,” said Porter, who leads a Friends of the Pool task force on creating an aquatics district.
The tax revenue collected by the district would be used to support the ongoing operations and maintenance of an aquatics facility. Having that piece of the financial puzzle in place will enable Friends of the Pool to seek the private and public funding needed to construct a year-round swimming pool, said Sarah Schrock, acting operations manager of Friends of the Pool.
Construction of an aquatics facility, estimated by consultants to be in the vicinity of $21 million, will require a combination of grants, fundraising, allocations from state and federal sources, and revenue raised by the district, Schrock said. Any potential construction funders will require assurance that the facility has a secure financial future.
“Without a sustainable source of operating funds, we will not be able to leverage public and private grants and funding,” Schrock said. “This district is a keystone to make this happen.”
The proposition that would appear on the November ballot calls for formation of a metropolitan park district (chapter 35.61 RCW) “to develop, construct, operate, and maintain the Methow Aquatics Center and related existing and future facilities,” according to the text of the measure.
The district would have authority to levy regular property taxes up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, and the district boundaries would the same as the Methow Valley School District. The district would be created by a simple majority vote.
Friends of the Pool learned lessons from a previous effort in 2014 to create a metropolitan park district to support recreation, which was soundly defeated by voters, 78% to 22%.
The proposed aquatics district differs in significant ways from the previous proposal, said Miles Milliken, a Friends of the Pool volunteer. The language of the aquatics district proposition stipulates that the district will not have the power of eminent domain, unlike the previous proposal, and the purpose of the aquatics district is specifically to support an aquatics center, rather than broader recreation options.
Additionally, the Methow Aquatics District would be governed by a five-member board of commissioners whose members would be appointed, rather than elected at the time of the district’s creation, as in the 2014 proposal.
The board would include one Twisp Town Council member, one Winthrop Town Council member, and the Okanogan County commissioner representing the Methow Valley. Two other at-large members who live within the Methow Valley School District boundaries would be appointed by the Twisp and Winthrop town councils. The towns and county would enter into an interlocal agreement for governance of the aquatics district.
Having board members who are elected officials, or appointed by local governments, ensures the district board will be accountable to voters, Porter said. “And it brings us a wealth of knowledge — a fluency in government that we want to capitalize on,” he said. The board would also create a citizens advisory committee to provide community input.
The district commissioners would be responsible for setting tax levy rates. The district’s maximum levy of 75 cents per $1,000 assessed property value would equal about $375 per year for a $500,000 home ($1.03 per day), or $525 for a $700,000 home ($1.44 per day), said Schrock.
However, Schrock said, financial consultants have estimated that operating costs for the aquatics center would be covered by a levy that is about half the maximum allowable amount.
Years of planning
Getting to the crucial point of bringing an aquatics district proposition to voters has been a years-long process.
Friends of the Pool was formed about 20 years ago as a group of community members who raised money — almost $400,000 over the years — to help pay for repairs and operations of the Wagner Memorial Pool, operated by the Town of Twisp.
The pool opened in 1967, funded by Ernst and Katherine Wagner, who wanted to help children learn to swim after a local boy drowned in the Methow River.
A fund created by the Wagners that provides $15,000 per year to help operate the pool will be depleted next year. And after Friends of the Pool hired a consultant to evaluate the pool’s condition in 2019, it became clear that the aging pool, plagued by leaks and other maintenance problems, was beyond repair.
So in 2020, Friends of the Pool began to focus on an ambitious vision — building a new pool to ensure that swimming would continue to be available to valley residents.
They called their initiative “The Big Splash,” and conducted community surveys, focus groups and community outreach. In 2021 Friends of the Pool received a donation from the Philadelphia Foundation, which supports community-based philanthropic causes, to hire a recreation consulting firm — Ballard*King and Associates — to conduct a feasibility study for a new pool.
Community meetings were held in 2021 and 2022 as part of the study, and the community voiced strong support for an indoor facility to provide year-round swimming. Consultants analyzed construction and operation costs and developed conceptual designs for a pool facility. They also advised on potential sources of funding for construction and operations.
“The feasibility study recommended a special district as the way to go,” Schrock said. “This is how communities of our size fund public pools.”
Approval of the special district will ensure the aquatics center has operating revenue, “a critical component to leverage outside funding from granting agencies and donors for construction,” Schrock said.
For construction costs, Friends of the Pool will launch a capital campaign to raise private donations and seek grants from state, federal and private sources, she said.
“Building the Methow Aquatics Center is a complex project and it will take a variety of sources of funding to make it a realty,” Schrock said.
The new district commissioners would have the authority to issue a bond for construction, but Friends of the Pool “will try to raise as much as we can through private fundraising and grants,” Schrock said. “The first step is (district) formation, and solidify an operating fund.”
Culture of year-round swimming
The design concept for the facility that emerged from the feasibility study and public input envisions two swimming pools in a building with retracting, insulated garage-type doors that can be closed during winter or inclement weather, including wildfire smoke events, or opened to the outdoors.
One pool would be a six-lane competition pool for swim team and lap swimming, and the other pool would be shallower and warmer for swim lessons, exercise classes, and recreational swimming.
The facility would include a multi-purpose room, changing rooms, an indoor hot tub and an outdoor splash pad.
Plans call for the aquatics center to be located in Twisp, at a new site, because of its central location in the valley and larger population, and the ability of children to walk or bike to the facility.
Building and maintaining a pool may be an expensive proposition, but residents of the recreation-oriented Methow Valley “inherently understand” the benefits of a year-round aquatics facility, Milliken said.
The facility would be used by people of all ages, from teaching young children how to swim, to offering water exercise classes for older residents, he said.
“A lot of other sports happen in the valley already,” Milliken said. An aquatics center “would go beyond the current use of the pool, in ways we don’t yet know.”
For Porter, a paramedic with Aero Methow Rescue Service, teaching children to swim and preventing drownings is a key reason for his support. “We have a safety mission,” he said. “The reason communities do this is because they value fun, well-being, and safety.”
Schrock said she expects a year-round aquatics center to create new recreation opportunities, similar to what has taken place at the Winthrop Ice Rink. “I’ve watched the recreation use of the rink go up. I never thought I’d be a hockey mom … but now I love it,” Schrock said.
The aquatics center, she said, could support activities like high school swimming classes, lifeguard training, kayak safety courses, scuba training, and underwater hockey.
“There will be new user groups, collections of people using it,” Schrock said. “We’re creating a new culture of year-round swimming.”
Friends of the Pool is collecting signatures on petitions at public locations and events, and at some local businesses around the valley. To place the aquatics district proposition on the ballot, 800 signatures, or 15% of the voter turnout within the district in the most recent election, are required. Friends of the Pool has a goal of gathering about twice that number.
People who are interested in learning more about the proposed aquatics center or the aquatics district can visit the Friends of the Pool website at foptwisp.com.
The Methow Aquatics District task force meets every Monday in Twisp at 5:30 p.m. Porter said people interested in participating or learning more can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call or text (509) 593-3848.