In a 5-2 vote Monday, the Pasco City Council said it's willing to support the idea of converting TRAC into an aquatic center -- and put an estimated $200,000 per year toward operating losses.
But council members who voted in favor also made sure the city isn't on the hook for the money just yet.
The resolution adopted by the council at its Monday meeting basically endorses the Pasco Public Facilities District's proposal for the TRAC conversion and agrees to split the losses with the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District if the regional PFD decides the aquatic center is the project to send to voters.
"It demonstrates the city is serious about being a partner," City Manager Gary Crutchfield said.
And it caps the regional PFD's contribution at $200,000 per year, he said.
But the city would have to enter into a formal contract with the regional PFD to finalize the deal, he said.
The idea of converting TRAC from its current use as a venue for agricultural and trade shows and other events is the brainchild of the Pasco Public Facilities District, which is helmed by Crutchfield.
The district pitched the idea to the Regional Public Facilities District nearly a month ago.
The regional district currently is considering four proposals for a regional project: the TRAC proposal, adding an exhibit hall to the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, contributing toward the construction of a multimillion-dollar Reach Interpretive Center in Columbia Park or constructing a performing arts center.
The legislation that allowed the creation of the regional PFD requires voter approval for whatever project or projects it ultimately decides to build.
Pasco Councilman Tom Larsen, who voted against the TRAC conversion Monday, said he questions whether taxpayers can afford the $35 million price tag and suggested an aquatic center should be paid for by private business instead of tax dollars.
"If the private sector doesn't feel this is feasible right now, why would taxpayers feel it's feasible?" Larsen said. "We are now in a recession. It may soon be a depression. The taxpayers may not have the money to do it."
Crutchfield said private sector investors tend to be more interested in outdoor water parks rather than the kind of indoor aquatic facility TRAC would become because indoor aquatic centers often are not self-sustaining.
"It's the indoor element that costs so much to build and operate," Crutchfield said. "That's why the private sector doesn't do them and most of them are publicly owned."
Consultant Ken Ballard projected about a 12 percent operating shortfall, or $400,000, per year, according to an April 20 staff report by Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel.
"This ... would seem to be in the range expected for aquatic facilities of this magnitude," Strebel's report said.
Councilman Bob Hoffmann also voted against the TRAC conversion, and raised questions about what would happen if the shortfall exceeded the projected amount.
"I'm a little bit leery of an open-ended agreement," Hoffmann said.
Crutchfield said the city plans to cover its contribution with lodging tax money, which could cover Pasco's $200,000 annual contribution plus another $100,000 if the operating deficit is higher.
But he added the consultant's projection was a conservative one and it seemed unlikely the shortfall would exceed $400,000 per year.
Mayor Matt Watkins said having a regional aquatic center in Pasco could bring other benefits, such as attracting swim meets and tourism that could spur hotel and restaurant construction.
"That's harder to measure," he said.