Regional aquatics measure failing

Tri-City HeraldAugust 6, 2013 

Aquatics vote

Jim Hall, left, and Randy Willis, both members of the Citizens for Tri-Cities Regional Aquatic Center, discuss results from Tuesday's ballot regarding the construction and operation of an indoor/outdoor aquatics facility and water park.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

A sales tax measure that would bring a long-sought regional aquatics facility and water park to the Tri-Cities was failing Tuesday night.

It had 10,391 yes votes, or 45 percent, to 12,567 no votes, or about 55 percent, according to the first round of returns.

The measure — the first one ever to be brought by the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District — was on the ballot in the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick.

The results aren’t yet final.

In Benton County, where the proposal was being soundly rejected, an estimated 5,000 ballots still are left to be counted.

In Franklin County, where the measure got a much warmer welcome, about 1,200 ballots were uncounted.

Updated results will be released Wednesday.

Supporters on Tuesday were disappointed, saying low voter turnout likely played a role.

“We felt very confident,” said Paul Whitemarsh. “Everything that we saw, over the last three to four years especially, said this is a very positive thing the Tri-Cities is ready for. Going back even eight years, when we first did the private design concept study and floated that around the Tri-Cities, we had nothing but positive (feedback).”

He added that “the fact that the three cities could come together for something so grand was almost as great as the (aquatics) project itself,” and “the fact that that (collaboration) was rejected hurts almost as much as the loss of the aquatics center.”

Whitemarsh and Randy Willis, another longtime aquatics proponent, both said they hope the regional public facilities district will try the proposal again. “We can’t get ahead if we don’t swing the bat. We’ve got to take another at-bat,” Willis said.

Meanwhile, Vic Epperly, perhaps the most vocal critic of the aquatics proposal, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Any issue like this — it’s unfortunate that there are winners and losers. But I think the voters have clearly indicated that they want something different than what was proposed,” he said.

If approved, the aquatics facility and water park would be built on 13 acres off Sandifur Parkway in the Road 100 area of west Pasco, with a mix of indoor and outdoor features.

The indoor section — including competition, training, leisure and activity pools, slides, a river channel and surf machine — would be open year-round. Outdoor features — including slides, a river channel, a wave/leisure pool and a volleyball and sand play area — would be open seasonally.

The land, development, construction and equipment would cost an estimated $35 million, with the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase raising enough each year to cover bond debt payments, administrative costs, build up an equipment replacement reserve and help with operations costs if needed, officials have said.

The sales tax measure requires approval from a majority of the total number of voters weighing in across the three cities. In Kennewick and Richland, it was being rejected by about 59 percent, according to the initial returns Tuesday.

In Pasco, the results were flipped. It was getting 57 percent approval, initial returns showed.

Matt Watkins, president of the regional public facilities board, said he was somewhat surprised by the lopsided results. The regional board will go on with its meeting next week, and “I’m looking forward to having a discussion with all the PFD members and cities on what we do with this,” he told the Herald.

“The most important thing was we had a Tri-Ctiy question and I think the voters answered the question. I’m proud we had that vote,” he said.

The regional public facilities district formed in 2010 to go after projects no one city could afford alone. The district’s board — made up of three officials each from Richland, Pasco and Kennewick — zeroed in on four possibilities before settling on the aquatics center its first choice.

The other possibilities were a performing arts center, contributing to the planned Hanford Reach Interpretive Center and expanding the Three Rivers Convention Center.

As election day neared, proponents of the aquatics facility and water park touted benefits from increased access to swim lessons and water safety training in the community to millions of dollars in tourist spending flowing in.

Opponents have made arguments including that a “commercial-style water park” shouldn’t be built using tax dollars.

Primary election results in both counties will be certified Aug. 20.

Sara Schilling: 582-1529;; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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