City has tepid response to aquatic center


City Council decides not to fund aquatic center until community groups can show a way to fund maintenance

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Demand for an aquatic center may be rising amongst residents but the Visalia City Council’s interest was tepid at best.

Earlier this month, the Visalia City Council decided not to fund an in-depth study of the costs to construct and maintain an aquatic center, the first official step in moving forward on the project. The decision came after an Aug. 8 presentation by the Aquatic Wellness Center Working Group, a non-commissioned citizens committee that has been meeting since July 2017 in an effort to convince the city to fund the facility. The report stated that a 50-meter pool will support public swimming, lap swimming, dual swim meet and water polo practices, a long and short course for competitions. Those competitions could have a residual effect for the city including people coming from outside the community who will book a hotel room, eat at local restaurants and shop at local retailers. 

A shallow pool provides a place for swim lessons, aquatic exercise, water therapy and rehab, and an area for general public pool play.

In addition to a wading pool and competition pool, the committee suggested other features of the facility such as a display of donors and sponsors who helped fund construction, a Visalia Aquatics Hall of Fame display, or local Record Board for record holders in community, club, youth and high school swimming and water polo. 

The group estimated construction of the facility, described as “a convention center with water,” to range from $12 million to $15 million. It was being proposed for a dirt lot at the corner of Burke and Oak Streets across from the city’s Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC) which opened in 2017 and a site being looked at for the future Civic Center/City Hall.

Councilmember Greg Collins, an avid swimmer and former swimming and water polo coach, has been organizing the committee since interest began to build last summer. 

“The pressure for additional aquatics programs is only going to grow,” he said. “With a complex we can grow programs.”

Swimming Too Close

Leah Peters said TNT, a Visalia area club swim team, has to travel to Clovis for their 10-team meets because there is no availability in Visalia and no facility large enough to host a four-day meet. “We lose out on hosting a meet two to four times per year,” she said. 

The aquatic center group presented a survey of summer pool hours showing a packed schedule at every high school pool from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. The schedule is a combination of VUSD uses such as high school water polo, club rentals including South Valley Water Polo Club, and city uses such as youth swim teams in the Central Valley Recreation Swim League. They also noted that College of the Sequoias was no longer offering its pool for use outside of the community college’s own programs.

Redwood High School water polo coach Major Rogers said his team is “treated like orphans” having to practice at 6 a.m. despite being the only Division I team in Tulare County to beat a Clovis team in Clovis, alluding to his team’s 9-7 defeat of Clovis West in the first round of the Division I playoffs last year. He also said there is a shortage of pools statewide as teams from Southern California and the Bay Area are always looking for tournaments to enter up and down the state. 

“We aren’t getting the full support our team deserves,” Rogers said.

Patrick Lozano, chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, said he and his fellow commissioners were concerned with the maintenance costs associated with a pool. 

“You can always find grants to build things but there are no grants to support the maintenance of facilities, such as an aquatics center,” he said. “We will need several hundreds of thousands of dollars for maintenance.”

Drowning in Cost 

The City of Reedley built its aquatics facility for $7 million in 2014 and it includes a 50-meter pool, a 4-lane, 25-yard warm up pool, seating for 500 people and restrooms. The only Tulare County school district building a pool right now is Farmersville Unified. Farmersville went out to bid on its new aquatic center earlier this month with an estimated cost of $6.5 million for a 25-meter pool, half the size of what is being proposed by the aquatic center group in Visalia, and includes locker rooms, restrooms and seating. Farmersville estimates its annual maintenance cost will be about $100,000 per year. 

Lozano estimated maintenance would cost about $20,000 per month on a $12 million facility, or about a quarter of a million dollars per year.

“Show us a pathway we can get behind,” Lozano said. 

Harold Myers said there was no doubt that demand exceeded available supply when it came to the need for pool time but there is also a need for another community center, a new civic center, and to replace a fire station. “We can’t do it all.”

Myers said the city had already spent $25,000 to investigate whether they should build a community center or pool, implying that the city had already spent $13,000 on studying a pool complex back in 2014. Myers said he was impressed with the work done by the Parks and Recreation Commission and suggested giving them more time to study it more thoroughly than the aquatic center group. 

“Give them a year and let them present a plan before spending any more time and money,” Myers said.

The $40,000 would have been used for preliminary design costs and to prepare a business plan for the use and fees associated with the facility. Construction of the facility would have been funded through recreation impact fees, private donations, grants, naming rights, and a partnership with Visalia Unified School District. 

The pillars of sustainability for an aquatic center, according to USA Swimming, can be broken down into four main categories:

-Learn to Swim: beginner and intermediate swim lessons with tiered pricing.

-Rehab: warm water aquatic therapy and rehab, considered the fastest growing aquatic activity in the nation.

-Aquatic Fitness: Resistance exercise that is low impact on joints for activities such as lap swimming, water aerobics, walking, stationary bicycle, etc.

-Competitive/Community: In addition to public swim days and lap swim times, the center will be heavily used by swim and water polo teams, and to host regional meets, triathlons and possibly the Special Olympics. 

According to the report, operations and maintenance costs would have been funded through fees paid for by organizations such as Visalia Unified, entrance fees for public swim days, rental fees from youth and club water polo and swim teams, rental fees for meets tournaments, triathlons, and parties.

After doing some quick calculations on the dais, Councilmember Phil Cox said if the city rented out the facility for every hour, every day for a year they would still fall short of $250,000 per year.

“How does this pencil out? The answer is, it doesn’t,” Cox said. “I’m not in support of giving $40,000 for the next step but I do support more work being done.”

Quality of Life Aquatic

One of the first people to speak during public comment was 11-year-old Thomas Matthews, who said he had been swimming in Visalia since he was 5 years old. He said he swims five days per week, and not just for competition. Matthews said swimming is a great way to workout your entire body without injury because it there is maximum resistance on your muscles but gentle resistance on your joints.

“Studies have shown it helps with insomnia, dementia and other conditions for young and old and those that are disabled,” Matthews said.

Dr. Henry Cisneros, a dental administrator with Family HealthCare Network, agreed. He said FHCN talks a lot about the types of amenities that keep young professionals in an area and that an aquatic complex is much higher on their list than more retail shops. 

“They are looking for quality of life and what are their opportunities for recreation and relaxation,” Dr. Cisneros said. “This is more than an aquatic center issue, this is a quality of life issue.”

Councilmember Collins agreed and asked the council to consider funding a thorough study of the costs associated with a pool. “Every major facility has costs, but it brings people to the community and keeps people in the community,” he said. 

The only other councilmember to support the idea of funding a pool study was Mayor Warren Gubler. After hearing all of the arguments, Gubler asked why the council was unwilling to fund a study for a pool that people clearly wanted but voted to fund a study on a south side community center that no one wanted. Gubler said he was willing to put in $30,000 to $40,000 to fund the study because of the amount of interest from residents.

“I never heard one person ask for a community center,” Gubler said. “Everyone is in favor of some kind of aquatics center.”

Wading for Specifics

Councilmember Steve Nelsen said he was disappointed in the entire presentation for its lack of specifics, inflated scope and its disregard for finding partnerships to fund the ongoing maintenance. He said the city has been doing major projects on roads and facilities just to bring them up to current standards, and, even with Measure N outpacing projects, still doesn’t have enough money for all of the necessary maintenance. As an example, he said the city was forgoing a new roof on city hall, which was estimated at $500,000 in a one-time payment.

“You need to take the blinders off and look at the scope,” Nelsen said. “I can’t support any other expenditures at this time.”

Nelsen said he partnering with Visalia Unified, the County of Tulare or even the City of Tulare to build an aquatic center would have alleviated a lot of his concerns by spreading the maintenance cost over several entities. He also pointed out this is how Visalia handles maintenance on most of its existing schools.

Robert Groeber, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said the first competition pool was built by the city at Redwood High School decades ago. Since that time, Visalia Unified and the City have been using the pool under a joint use agreement giving city programs priority in the summer and school programs priority during the school year. The agreement, which was last updated in 1989, was signed under different circumstances than exist today. Groeber said summer used to be three months long, and more schools have added both boys and girls water polo since that time.

Golden West High School’s pool was built as a practice facility for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in a joint venture between the Olympic Committee, the city and the district, and the local entities again signed a cooperative use agreement. Mt. Whitney and El Diamante’s pools were both built by the school district but Groeber said all four are operated as joint use facilities, with the school district handling maintenance costs a portion of which are offset by facility use fees paid by the city.

“We look at all four pools as community assets,” Groeber said. “We work around the school schedule to create as much access to the public as possible.” 

Needing an aquatic center may also become moot if VUSD voters approve a school bond measure this fall. As part of Measure A, a $105 million school bond, VUSD will build a fifth high school that will include a football stadium, performing arts theater and a competition pool.

“We want to build a pool that serves the school’s needs but also provides access for the community,” Groeber said.

Councilmember Nelsen concluded his statements by saying, “It doesn’t have to be a City of Visalia pool, it just needs to be a pool.”

Vice Mayor Bob Link said he would also not support the $40,000 study but did like the idea of the Parks & Recreation Commission taking a closer look and reporting back to the council with more specifics. 

The council voted 4-1 to direct the commission to study an aquatic facility and then report back in six months. Gubler cast the lone dissenting vote.

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