Public speaks in favor of Visalia pool, council pushing planning to parks & rec

Visalia City Council takes request from Councilmember Collins to build an aquatic center, hands it off to parks and recreation department for future planning

VISALIA – The long debated prospect of a Visalia aquatic center got perhaps its last push from Councilmember Greg Collins. Though this time community members spoke out to show their support for funding it. 

At the Oct. 3 meeting, council did not outright deny Collins’ request to add the discussion of building an aquatics center on the agenda for next meeting, but instead moved the item to their parks and recreation department for further planning. The item was listed on the agenda’s consent calendar, which includes routine items that don’t require discussion unless pulled for a separate discussion. Instead of passing it, the item was pulled by Councilmember Liz Wynn for further discussion.

“I am just anxious to review this item and have some proposals and figure these things out,” Wynn said. “[And to] hear what the public has to say.”

As it turns out, the public had a lot to say. One community member, Erma Wheeler, said she has spent large sums of money, between $500 to $1,000, every weekend traveling to see her son play water polo. She said she hoped at one time that her kids could enjoy a community pool but it hasn’t happened, and hopes her future grandkids will be able to see it come to Visalia.

“I support the initiative of having us parents generate some income, some funding, for the maintenance of the pool,” Wheeler said. “I will move mountains, if that’s what it takes, to help build this pool.”

Juan Guerrero, board president for Visalia Unified School District, said he is supportive of getting Visalia a pool. He said he would like to see a cooperation or working relationship with the city, the college and possibly the county. 

“Just being a board member and seeing the working relationships that we’ve had over the years, we can do this,” Guerrero said.

Candidate for the District 4 council seat in the upcoming election, Mary Line-Labbee, also made a public comment. A water polo mom herself, Line-Labbee said a competitive pool could funnel money into the city if water polo tournaments were held in Visalia. She also said students, like her daughter, could get entry into colleges on scholarships for the sport, so it’s important to have a pool that can be utilized for competitive use in addition to community use. She said there are a lot of parents, referees and coaches who are very passionate about this and want to “pour money” into this project.

“We’ve all done fundraising,” Line-Labbee said. “We know that people who raise the money are the ones who are the most passionate about things.”

Councilmember Collins said when it comes to the discussion of an aquatic center, money is always an issue. After he spent time with the city’s finance director and reviewed the budget, he said the city has the funds available to accomplish this. Collins believes the aquatic center could be funded between the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, parks and recreation impact fees, property sales, Measure M sales tax, state grants and private donations. The city’s annual public opinion survey, which informs the city of public sentiments and opinions regarding various city services, indicated that over 72% of Visalians want a pool complex, which leads Collins to believe private donations could be substantial.

“We always pride ourselves on the high standard of quality of life,” Collins said. “And this is one additional facility that will enhance quality of life.”

From an economic perspective, Collins said a pool could attract people to the community who do not usually frequent Visalia. He said things like water polo tournaments, swim meets and triathlons would encourage more people to come to Visalia. It’ll also lead to the likelihood of them staying in Visalia hotels overnight and dining in at local restaurants.

“I would just like to see the council step up to the plate, or step up to the pool edge, and say this is something that the community wants. It’s something the community needs,” Collins said. “We’ll find money, like we always do, and let’s get going. It’s been 10 years.”

Councilmember Wynn said the aquatic center has been talked about for a long time and it would be nice to move it forward. However, in order to do so, she said the city needs to be practical by getting more information and public input first.

Councilmember Brett Taylor said this process is not going to be quick, as most government matters are not. He said the cost of building a pool is one thing, but the cost of pool maintenance is entirely separate and more expensive than maintaining a football or soccer field. He also said he is not interested in throwing out projects the city has been working on for years, like the civic center complex, to make way for something else.

“I’m not going to take steel pots of money that we’ve been setting aside for decades just because there’s something new and flashy in the way,” Taylor said. “I think we should look at this. I think we can support this, I think we can build it, but we need to do it appropriately.”

Although he agreed the city needs a swimming facility, Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian echoed similar sentiments to Councilmember Taylor that nothing is quick when it comes to government. He said he would like to see a pool for everybody rather than just a competitive pool.

“If we’re gonna build a pool it needs to be for everybody,” Poochigian said. “The city of Visalia doesn’t do things just for certain groups, we do it for the entire city.”

For his comments, Mayor Steve Nelsen made sure to remind the public that council is in support of getting an aquatic center in Visalia, but the city needs time to do so. He said he understands the passion when it comes to fundraisers, donations and willingness to help out in these situations, but when passionate advocates eventually move on, there’s no one to raise the money. Therefore, he said it needs to be done correctly and supported tabling the item to strategic planning and giving it to the city’s parks and recreation director.

“We’re going to discuss it, but we’re not ready to jump on the bandwagon tonight,” Nelsen said. “Because we need that time and effort.”

Vice Mayor Poochigian made a motion to approve Collins’ request and have the city’s parks and recreation director conduct a plan for the aquatic center and be brought back to strategic planning for future discussion. The motion was seconded by Councilmember Taylor. The motion carried 4 to 1 with Collins in opposition.

Collins has been a long time proponent for a 50-meter competition pool, a zero splash entry pool and swimming wall of fame. The competition pool would be able to accommodate 20 lanes for swimming contests, such as a regional meet for competitive youth and high school swim teams. A large section of the competition pool will be shallow for water aerobics, access for those with disabilities and swim lessons. The zero-splash entry pool will only have about a foot of water and a water play structure, where children can climb, slide and spray or be sprayed with water features. 

Collins first floated the idea of an aquatics center in 2017 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 between $12 million and $15 million. 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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