Visalia City Council disagrees on whether the city should build a civic center, community center or aquatics center

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – A presentation about a proposed community center turned into a longterm planning discussion that spilled over into an aquatics center and then shifted to the need for a civic center last month.

Parks and Recreation Director Jeannie Greenwood presented the estimated costs associated with a southside community center to the Visalia City Council at its Oct. 15 meeting. The community center would be located on nine acres at the northeast corner of Visalia Parkway and County Center next to the Visalia Police Department’s South Precinct building.
“This facility will be filled on day 1,” Greenwood said. “Everything is cramped on the north side and people have to commute across town to participate.”

The community center had a total price tag of between $13 million and $16 million. The annual cost for operations and maintenance on the facility was estimated to be $310,000. Greenwood said the center would maximize paid programs and rental opportunities to offset the ongoing costs of the facility through fitness memberships, afterschool programs, and fees for classes and special programs. Despite the claims of additional revenues, the staff report noted that overall recreation revenues have decreased since a spike in 2015.

Councilmember Phil Cox asked how much of the money to build the center was currently in city coffers. Greenwood said there was about $1.6 million available in the park impact fee fund each year but said construction costs are projected to increase by 4-5% each year the city waits.

Cox suggested pairing down the community center to make room for a non-competitive public swimming pool at the site.
“The dollars are a big concern for me,” Cox said. “Sixteen million is a lot of heartburn for me.”
Councilmember Steve Nelsen agreed saying he felt the project had snowballed in amenities and cost from the original project.

“If you can get grants to cover some of the cost then I would be for that, but I’m not ready to say this is the project right now,” Nelsen said.

The community center discussion dates back to January 2014 when members of the City Council expressed interest in the project. The council approved $30,000 in the 2014-16 budget to hire a consultant to develop conceptual plans and preliminary costs. In January 2015, the project committee discussed a variety of elements that could be incorporated into the center including a recreational pool and a competitive 50-meter pool.

In February 2016, the committee released a request for proposal for designs of a south side multigenerational community center that did not include a 50-meter competitive pool. Four public meetings were held from fall 2017 through May 2018 before the committee approved a final concept. The final concept encompassed 9 acres and included a 26,500-square foot building with a gymnasium, kitchen and snack bar, a 166-stall parking lot, walking paths, basketball courts, tennis court and open turf area.

In the summer of 2017, Councilmember Greg Collins floated the idea of an aquatics center and suggested adding $25,000 to the budget instead of moving forward on a proposed $8.6 million project to build four lighted softball fields at Riverway Sports Park. In December 2017, Collins also suggested using a $1.5 million grant earmarked for the East Side Regional Park on the aquatics center. The 200-park east of Lovers Lane and north of Highway 198 will be split between a groundwater recharge basin and recreation amenities similar to Riverway Sports Park north of downtown. Collins said he would like to see the community center and aquatics center combined.

“I’d like to see [the community center] or an aquatic center built before the East Side Regional Park,” Collins said.
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. The council had a little bit of sticker shock when the Aquatics Center Committee presented an estimated cost of between $12 million and $15 million but were more concerned with the annual maintenance cost, estimated to be about a quarter of a million dollars per year.

Vice Mayor Bob Link argued that an aquatics center could be a moot point after yesterday’s election. If Visalia Unified School District’s Measure A passes, half of the $105 million school bond would go toward building a fifth high school that will include a football stadium, performing arts theater and a competition pool.

Link went on to say the community center was obviously needed on the south side of town and the area will experience growth in the coming years, only increasing the need for a community center on that side of town. Link suggested moving forward with the community center while also working with the Visalia Unified School District to build a joint-use competitive pool at a new high school. All of the pools at Visalia’s high schools split time between youth recreation leagues and high school competitive teams.

“Unless one of us wins the $150 million lottery we should start putting money away for these projects,” Link said.
Mayor Warren Gubler said he didn’t think a community was a necessity and thinks the council should consider combining the community and aquatics center. His priority was building a new civic center to house city hall as well as a police and fire station. He suggested moving forward on that project and then finding grant funding to build a joint community center and aquatics center.

“This council or the next will have to choose one of these projects,” Mayor Gubler said. “We just don’t have the money to do all four. We have to prioritize otherwise we end up doing nothing.”

The most financially feasible of the three is the civic center. The city already owns City Hall West on Acequia Avenue and Johnson Street, the Planning Department on Acequia and Bridge Street, City Hall East on Oak Avenue and Santa Fe Street, and the Sonic Plaza, the collection of four office buildings across the parking lot from Sonic Drive-In at Ben Maddox Way and Goshen Avenue. If City Hall were to remain split between its current buildings, the city would need to spend at least $300,000 in repairs and upgrades to City Hall West.

Instead, staff discussed consolidating employees from several buildings into the Sonic Plaza, roughly 14,000 square feet with an addition, while the city socks away money for a new civic center. These other buildings could then be sold off to fund the construction of a new civic center. The city has also discussed building a single story or two-story civic center, which could bring all of city management under one roof. A two-story civic center was estimated at 37,000 square feet. A new civic center could cost the city between $14 million and $21 million.

The City still has about $25 million in debt to payoff for previous facilities including the Convention Center remodel, the Animal Care Center and the Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC). Those payments equal about $2.4 million per year. The Civic Center impact fee collects about $300,000 annually. The General Fund will finish the next two fiscal years with a surplus but is projected to see increasing deficits in 2021, 2022 and 2023 primarily due to its growing pension payments.

“Quit jerking everyone around,” Councilman Nelsen told his fellow councilmembers. “You’ve got our staff working on three different projects and we’re just idling. At some point you’ve got to put it in gear and move ahead.”
Potential, future councilmembers have already weighed in on the issue. All three candidates running for Gubler’s seat on the Nov. 6 ballot have shared their thoughts on their priorities among the projects. Poochigian said his priority was to build a new civic center for public safety.

“Right now, the city’s law enforcement and first responders are spread throughout the city in outdated buildings,” he told The Sun-Gazette earlier this month.

His opponent, Steve Woods, said he felt the city could do all three by temporarily dipping into the $25 million in the reserve fund. He said his priorities were to provide additional recreation facilities that help improve the quality of life for Visalia residents.

“While a new Community Center on the Southside would provide the most benefit initially, I also support the Aquatics Center, as the Parks and Recreation Department is laboring under a lack of facilities for swim lessons and water-based exercise,” Woods said. “For both of these facilities, Parks and Rec have programming ready to fill them calendar-round.”
Merritt Wiseman took an entirely different approach suggesting that the city spend more time on educational opportunities rather than recreational ones.

“Personally, I think Visalia would be well served by developing new college and career partnerships, similar to CSU Fresno and College of the Sequoias, to offer more 4 year degrees right here at home,” Wiseman said.

On Monday night, Nov. 5, the council continued their discussion of these projects. The meeting was held after press time. An update of the issue will be in the next edition of The Sun-Gazette.

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