Aquatics center in Tri-Cities closes in on reality

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldApril 27, 2013 

Imagine a sprawling aquatics center in the middle of the Tri-Cities, visible from a well-traveled interstate highway, with a competition pool, a surf simulator, slide towers, a wave pool and hundreds of swimmers splashing, racing, plunging, gliding and diving year-round.

It's only an idea now -- a vision of what could be -- but it might become a reality before too long, depending on the outcome of a public vote.

A regional board has been working for months on an aquatics center proposal and is on the cusp of several key decisions, including the timing of a sales-tax measure to pay for the facility and what features it could offer.

It's been a journey of many years to this point. An intense period of work will lie ahead -- for supporters and opponents -- once the regional board takes the final steps needed to bring the proposal to Tri-City voters.

It's expected to be in voters' hands by this summer.

"They're going to have to make that decision -- it's not only the facility itself, but also the tourist draw, the building up of a competitive swimming culture, all of those things -- do those add up to (convincing them) to commit to long-term investment in this kind of facility," said Matt Watkins, Pasco mayor and president of the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District.

"Do they want to make it their facility?"

How much will it cost?

The regional board, with three members each from Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, plans to ask voters in the three cities for a one-tenth of 1 percent sales-tax increase to pay for the aquatics center off Sandifur Parkway in Pasco.

The regional board aims to run the sales-tax measure in the August primary and is expected to consider making that official at its next meeting, May 8.

The board still would have until May 20 to change course and push the measure to November if the primary draws too few other races, driving up election costs.

The proposed sales-tax bump would add one penny to a $10 purchase.

Officials estimate -- based on sales-tax collections the past several years -- that the regional public facilities district, or PFD, can afford to issue about $38 million in sales-tax revenue bonds.

About $35 million would cover construction, fees and permitting and other project costs. The rest would go toward bond issuance expenses and a $2.52 million "debt service reserve" that would act as a backup pot for bond payments.

The PFD would pay back the bond debt over time using the sales tax increase.

The one-tenth of 1 percent is estimated to annually generate about $3.35 million across the three cities. PFD officials are budgeting $2.5 million for bond debt payment, $600,000 to pay for facility operations not covered by admission fees, and $250,000 for administrative costs and the equipment replacement reserve.

It hasn't been decided what entity would operate the facility. Possibilities include a private company and a local public facilities district, such as the Pasco PFD, which doesn't operate a facility.

The budget is conservative, especially when it comes to operations and equipment, regional PFD officials said. They're budgeting about twice as much for those areas as was included in a consultant's analysis.

"We don't want to be on a knife's edge on this project," Watkins told the Herald. "We not only want this project to succeed, we want it to succeed well. I think we're doing that strategically, to make sure that we're not over-estimating what we can afford in this community."

Officials expect the aquatics center could draw an average of about 1,000 people a day -- more in the summer when it's all open and less in the off-season when only the indoor features are active.

Admission prices haven't been set, but they could be in the neighborhood of $7 for children and $9 for adults.

If Tri-City voters approve the sales-tax measure, the aquatics center could open in summer 2015.

What will it look like?

The regional board has zeroed in on a proposal with indoor features including a 25-meter-by-25-yard competition pool, surf simulator, zero-depth entry pool, current channel and slide tower.

Outdoor features include another slide tower, a wave pool, river and channel network, concessions and a sand volleyball area.

It was the least expensive of three scenarios presented by Water Technology Inc., the firm handling conceptual design, during the board's April meeting. The firm is making some adjustments -- they're expected to be relatively small -- and will bring back an updated version May 8.

The other two options mulled by the regional board included larger competition pools. Each would cost several million dollars more.

Some community members told the board in April that they would prefer to see recreation features scaled back in favor of a bigger competition pool.

"I would like to see a year-round swimming pool here; I really don't care to see all the water park (elements). My thought is not to pay for that," one man said.

But Stan Strebel, Pasco's deputy city manager, who's providing staff support to the regional PFD, told the Herald that the indoor features cost more to operate.

"All the experts and consultants we've talked to tell us that the outdoor (recreation) elements are the ones that really pay for themselves -- they bring the larger crowds," Strebel said, adding the board feels the proposed mix of features strikes the right balance.

A smaller competition pool could be expanded in the future, Strebel and Watkins said.

Another tax measure?

The aquatics center might not be the only local sales-tax request on the ballot this year.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District board is making plans also to ask Kennewick voters this November for a one-tenth of 1 percent sales-tax increase.

That would raise money for expanding the Three Rivers Convention Center on West Grandridge Boulevard -- something Kennewick PFD leaders say is needed to make the facility more regionally competitive.

Three Rivers loses out on business because of space constraints, and some groups that hold conventions and events there also are outgrowing the facility, the leaders say.

The Kennewick City Council must give its blessing before the measure can head to the ballot. It would need approval only from Kennewick voters.

The aquatics center sales-tax increase will need approval from a majority of the total number of voters in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick.

A deep history

The regional board at one time considered making the expansion of the convention center its first project. The board formed in 2010 and got to work narrowing a list of possibilities.

Four rose to the top: the aquatics center, expanding the convention center, a regional performing arts center and contributing to the planned Hanford Reach Interpretive Center.

A public survey showed strongest support for an aquatics center and a performing arts center.

The board last summer made an aquatics center its first choice, although the project was plunged into limbo when the planned location -- the TRAC facility off Road 68 in Pasco -- fell through.

The new site, near the Broadmoor Park outlet mall in the Road 100 area, was identified toward the end of last year.

The city of Pasco has an option to buy the land that's good through January.

The concept of a regional aquatics center has gained momentum in recent months, but it's been around for years. The Herald's archive is peppered with stories -- stretching back far into the last decade -- about an aquatics center task force trying to build community support.

There also have been private proposals, including an indoor and outdoor water park, hotel and family fun center in the same Sandifur Parkway area that could soon be home to the regional PFD's aquatics facility.

The special use permit for that private project has expired.

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