Tri-Cities Regional PFD OKs sales tax measure for aquatics center

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 24, 2013 

Voters in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick will decide later this year whether a long-sought regional aquatics center should sink or swim.

The Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District board agreed Wednesday to send a sales tax increase that would pay for the $35 million facility to the ballot. The measure either will appear in August or November -- the board has yet to decide on the timing.

"It's a big night," said Matt Watkins, board president, after the unanimous vote.

Board member John Givens praised the "positive regional decision" and said "it will set the benchmark for many more to come."

"I believe our job now is just starting again, and that is to make sure that we have the best possible project with the most precise numbers available to bring to the voters for them to make an informed decision," he said.

The vote is a milestone in the long effort to bring an aquatics center to the Tri-Cities, and it means the start of an intense work plan to iron out details of the proposal and convince the public of its merits.

Among the work in the weeks ahead: firming up budget numbers and outlining the amenities to be included in the facility.

The board also must choose when to put the one-tenth of a percent sales-tax increase before voters -- a decision that's likely to come at a meeting next month.

Some board members have brought up the advantage of running the measure in the summertime, when high temperatures would make a water park more appealing.

But election costs are a consideration, and it could be significantly cheaper to run the measure in the general election, when a busier ballot would mean a greater chance to spread out the election expenses.

The board came close to voting on whether to move forward with a ballot measure earlier this month, but the group held off, saying a little more time was needed.

Some board members Wednesday acknowledged the long process.

"There are lots of rules and requirements that have to be adhered to, plus there's a great deal of due diligence that has to happen in order for such a proposal to be taken out to the community for vote," said board member Sandra Kent. "I think we've done that, and I'm very excited to finally have gotten to the point where we've said, 'Yes, an aquatics center is on the ballot.' "

Board Vice President Steve Young said the process is being observed by officials around the state. "They're watching to see how these three cities are going to come together to make this happen and get a project done," he said. "... We cannot fail. It's important that we do this right."

The board formed a few years ago and worked to settle on a regional project to pursue. It picked an aquatics center as its first choice last summer, but the proposal hit a roadblock when the planned location -- TRAC off Road 68 in Pasco -- fell through.

The plan now is to build the center on land the city of Pasco has agreed to buy off Sandifur Parkway.

On Wednesday, the board's vote was met with applause from about 20 people in the audience, including some long-time aquatics center proponents.

John Tixier, president of Tri-City Channel Cats, talked about a winter meet the club is preparing to host in Ellensburg.

"Hopefully the horizon is in front of us for our home meets being at home," he said.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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