VUSD could decide if aquatics center plan sinks or swims

Visalia city council says it will not move forward on a new pool unless Councilmember Greg Collins can convince Visalia Unified to assist with the ongoing maintenance costs

VISALIA – A city councilmember’s proposal to build an aquatic center will sink or swim depending on what the school district says.

That’s what the Visalia City Council told Councilmember Greg Collins at the Sept. 7 meeting when he asked to have the aquatic center placed on the Oct. 4 agenda for discussion. Collins, who has been championing the project for four years, hasn’t brought it back to the council since receiving a commitment of half a million for ongoing maintenance of the pool from California Water Service, which is contingent on council approval of the entire project. The council denied his request on a 3-2 vote with Liz Wynn joining Collins in setting a future date for a presentation.

“I do agree we need a public pool and it would be nice to partner with someone but I have no objection to seeing it on Oct. 4,” Councilmember Wynn said.

At the Sept. 20 meeting, Collins said he had given a presentation to the Visalia Unified School District’s cabinet and the school board president last week to see if they would be interested in helping fund the ongoing maintenance cost of a new public pool. Collins said board president Juan Guerrero suggested bringing the item up for discussion at the next joint meeting between the city and school district.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian said Collins’ agenda item at the Sept. 7 meeting was “putting the cart before the horse” as the city did yet have a partner for the life of the project, as Cal Water’s donation was capped at 10 years. Councilmember Brett Taylor said he voted against moving the project forward because he wanted to wait until after the school district gave an answer before putting any staff time into a project that might be dead in the water.

“If the school district does move forward, and say they are interested in partnering with us, then I would be in support of putting this on the agenda,” Taylor said.

Collins took issue with the logic saying the school district would be more apt to take a partnership seriously if the council were to commit to the project, or at least have a future discussion on the books, prior to meeting with them. He said more money has been brought to the aquatic center than any other sports facility or recreation program he can remember during his more than 30 years on the city council.

“It’s like everybody wants a pool but we don’t want to take the first step,” Collins said. “If I can’t get the support then it just dies here and everybody hopes we get a pool but nobody is willing to step up to the plate to do it.”

Mayor Steve Nelsen said nothing has changed in the last two years since the council voted to spend its efforts on a new public safety building rather than a new community center or aquatic center. He said the council was on board with sharing the cost of the facility when the school district passed Measure A, but then the district decided it did not have enough money to build a new high school, including a new pool and other amenities, when California voters did not pass a statewide school bond measure in March 2020. Nelsen

“I totally support a pool. I don’t support going it alone,” Nelsen said. “I think it’s needed for the city but I also think it’s needed with a partner.”

Collins countered with a growing list of partners who are waiting on the city to commit to the project before they commit funding. In addition to $500,000 over 10 years from CalWater, Collins said he has placed a request for $50,000 in funding with the Visalia Rotary Club for next year, has had several private citizens indicate an interest in donating toward the pool and may have a willing partner in the school district, depending on what they say next week.

“I don’t know how many partners you need?,” Collins asked sternly.

The annual maintenance costs of the aquatic center have been estimated as high as $250,000 by the Aquatics Center Committee Collins formed in 2018. The council was turned off by the idea the facility may not generate enough revenue to cover the ongoing costs. Most of the maintenance would be covered by use fees charged to youth swim teams, swim lessons, aquatic therapy for those rehabilitating from injuries and water fitness for the elderly, as well as hosting travel and youth team tournaments and regional meets for high school swim and water polo teams.

Collins scaled back the project based on additional feedback from council members. Collins reduced the competition lanes from 50 to 38 meters, which would allow for 12 lanes of swimming and is wide enough to accommodate a full-sized water polo area. The competition pool now has a max depth of 7 feet, which would eliminate diving but save on the cost of construction and maintenance. In all, the changes are projected to have lowered the cost of the complex from more than $12 million to about $10 million.

The complex would still include a kiddie pool, which would only be open in the summer months, locker rooms, as well as two walls dedicated as a local aquatics hall of fame, featuring high school and youth swim team records.

“We haven’t had a new pool since 1987 and the population has increased significantly,” Collins told the council. “Pools are good for not only youth but adults, keeping healthy and teaching people how to swim. Fundraising efforts are in the wings.”

Collins, and aquatic enthusiasts, say there is a growing need for an aquatic center in Visalia because the amount of available time in the pool is shrinking for nearly every group. He said public swim time, lap swim for exercise, triathlete training and swim lessons are constantly competing with high school swim, water polo and dive teams. Collins said the city of Visalia and Visalia Unified School District have an agreement that high school athletics get scheduling preference during the school year but that City programs exercise that right in the summer months, but there is always overlap.

“The school district, when a pool is on their campus, tends to consume it,” Collins said. “If we have our own then we control it and there are many programs that would benefit and grow substantially.”

The aquatic center seemed to be sunk in 2019 when the council similarly voted 3-2 to deny Collins’ request to put the facility back on the council’s agenda. Collins called for the vote after the council received a thorough report from the Parks and Recreation Commission during a joint meeting on March 12, 2019.

Collins first floated the idea of an aquatics center in 2017 and asked the council to approve $25,000 to hire a consulting firm to look into the hard costs of building a city-owned facility. The aquatics center was originally proposed as a stand-alone facility for competition, recreation and rehabilitation on the dirt lot at the corner of Burke and Oak streets across from the Visalia’s Emergency Communications Center (VECC) which opened in 2017. There was broad support for the project from the public and the council but both seemed worried about the cost, an issue which has plagued swim complex projects in the past.

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