Visalia’s Aquatic Center hits rough waters

The verdict is in, everyone wants an Aquatic Center and confidence is high that grant money and naming rights could pay for most of the facility’s construction.

The fly in the ointment is the likely $600,000-a-year tab for maintenance that grants don’t cover.

The Aquatic Wellness Center Working Group, formed to research the feasibility of a community pool complex, presented its findings at the August 6 Visalia City Council meeting.  The complex would include a 50-meter competitive pool, children’s play pool, and a shallow pool for lessons and rehab.

The complex could be located on the corner of School and Burke close to the Visalia Emergency Communications Center.

At the end of its presentation the working group asked the city council for $40,000 in seed money to hire a professional to draft a preliminary design and a business plan.

Councilmember Phil Cox said that last year’s estimate of six million dollars gave him heartburn. The new price tag of $12 to $15 million to build the complex is not justifiable he said.

“How does this pencil out? It doesn’t,” said Cox.

David Alberstein, chair of the committee, introduced several options on how to pay for the Aquatic Complex, though he acknowledged that there are few resources to pay for the maintenance.

Alberstein conceded that the income generated by the complex would likely never make it self sufficient.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Patrick Lozano said that the department is always concerned when the city proposes building anything. He said that the city can get it built but the problem is the long-term costs.

Lozano said that their research estimates that it will cost the city $45,000 to $60,000 a month to maintain the complex.

There are currently several facilities already being subsidized by Visalia’s General Fund, making the council very reluctant to take on one more. Facilities such as the Visalia Golf Course, Visalia Convention Center, Rawhide and the Animal Control Facility cost the city from $300,000 to one million dollars each a year to maintain.

The Need is Real

No one argued about the need for an aquatic Center. The city of Visalia owns the Redwood High pool, but it is in need of repair and Redwood’s water polo and swim teams have priority over its use during the school year.

Because Visalia has no dedicated public pool, only eight weeks are available when school is out for expanded public use.

The College of Sequoia’s pool is off-limits to the public even though it was built with the residents’ tax dollars.

In contrast to Visalia, Porterville and Reedley each have a 50-meter pool. Clovis has five, making the town a destination for water polo tournaments and swim meets. Clovis has expressed a desire for Visalia to build its own facility because they have more tournaments than they can handle and are overwhelmed.

Lindsay ha a 25-meter pool but cities cannot host competitive swim events without a 50-meter pool.

During the Aquatic Wellness Center Working Group’s presentation it highlighted that demand for pool time in Visalia is more than the city can handle and is growing.

Alberstein said that a year-round city pool is needed for recreational uses, swim lesson, water safety instruction, aquatic exercise, therapy, and rehab, swim meets, water polo, Special Olympics, triathlons, and the Senior Olympics.

The 50-meter pool would mostly be used to attract tournaments and swim meets from around the state and would provide a facility for the Visalia teams to host their own event. The pool can accommodate two swim team practices at once, two water polo team practices or games at once, combined practices and long and short course swimming competitions.

Alberstein said that most of the community revenue, such as dining, shopping, sales, and bed taxes, will come almost exclusively from the 50-meter pool.

Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler said that the complex would cement Visalia’s growing reputation as a sports destination. Currently Visalia hosts the Senior Olympics, pickle ball tournaments and Cal Ripkin.

During public comment seven attendees spoke in favor of the facility while three said more research needs to be done before any seed money is allotted.

Macy Wilfong said she was a mom of several swimmers and that the pools in Visalia are too overcrowded. She said that swimming families’ needs are not being met by the city council.

“You can always find a way,” she said.

Leanne Peters said that Visalia has to host all of its competitions in Clovis, and all that money is being spent there. Major Roger, Redwood High’s water polo coach, said that Southern California and Northern California teams are always looking for tournaments and would come year round to Visalia’s events. Attendance also increases in competitions and events when they are held in the Central Valley because of the convenient location to the state’s metropolitan areas.

Several doctors spoke about the health benefits of having a city-owned pool available to its youth. They said that studies have revealed that those who learn to swim at a young age have better balance and cognitive abilities throughout life.

Swimming is a sport in which the thousands of local children who suffer from asthma can participate they said. Over-weight and obese children are more likely to swim than do sports on dry land because they are more mobile and it is better for their joints.

Several people pointed out that Visalia provides no access to swimming to its disabled community. The proposed complex would provide access to everyone.

Harold Meyers said during public comment that he was having similar sticker shock as Cox. Seven to nine million dollars will be spent constructing the 50-meter pool alone, according to the research, but would only account for three percent of the complex’ total use, with the vast majority of people using the children’s and shallow pools.  He felt that the shallow pool and kids’ play area would fulfill all the community’s health and recreation needs and might even turn a profit.

Joel Rosales said that if you look at the city’s projected budget four years out Visalia will be running a deficit. Given that, he said, it doesn’t make sense to be putting the city in a $12 million hole.

Council member Steve Nelsen was not convinced of the idea of “If we build it they will come.” He said there are no guarantees, and that makes the project’s finances even riskier. Nelsen said that the city already has several capital projects in the works, such as the public safety building and city hall. He didn’t want to see those projects deferred because of the Aquatic Complex.

Nelsen felt it was premature to make a decision to grant $40,000 seed money.

Council member Greg Collins, who has been the catalyst for the complex from the beginning, said that all those city facilities that Visalia subsidizes enhance the quality of life in Visalia.

“There is always a price to pay for the public benefit.”

Collins agreed that the city could accomplish what it needed with the two smaller pools, and that the ad hoc committee was going to have to show the council a pathway to make the 50-meter pool work. He felt the group needed to do a little more homework before the council agreed to handing over $40,000.

Vice Mayor Bob Link said that he has “heard loud and clear” that there is a definite need for a community pool but that he did not support approving of the seed money. He suggested that the Aquatic Center be handed over to the Parks and Recreation Department and work with the ad hoc committee to do more research.

Collins agreed with the two organizations working together and not closing any doors in terms of the Aquatic Center. These are the types of amenities that differentiate Visalia from other communities, he said.

Gubler said, “We are talking about $40,000 not $12 million,” and was in favor of approving the seed money.

The vote was 4-1 not to approve the seed money but to have the ad hoc committee and Parks and Recreation combine forces to do more research.

The project is scheduled to come in front of the council again early in 2019.

One thought on “Visalia’s Aquatic Center hits rough waters

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  1. Tulare County has 2 50-meter pools, the one at Granite Hills High in Porterville and the one at Exeter High. They are pathetically underused, and it is best to look at why for guidance
    Exeter’s history as a strong aquatics town is on the wane. This is because the achiever farming families of the past that drove the youth demographics in Exeter have been pushed out by today’s reality of corporate farming. Those family structures still exist in Exeter, but they are on the decline.

    Granite Hills is an even sadder story. It was built as a “magnet” school to draw achiever families to East Porterville and help to drive overall school achievement. Trouble was that it was a little ahead of its time and drew a few too many good athletes/students and there was a backlash from those who worried that the other 2 (at that time) high schools were being hollowed out.

    The point here is that demography needs to drive the use of the pools. Visalia’s demography will probably continue to drive pool use, because it is the (relatively) high income center of Tulare County. But the demand for use of these pools is centered around the high schools. Redwood has definitely outgrown the pool that it uses. It will have to build an adequate pool eventually. It is far smarter for the City of Visalia to enter into use partnerships for city recreational use than to try to build and maintain their own facilities.

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