Should we take the plunge? Vote on aquatics center Aug. 6

It's almost decision time -- the chance for Tri-City voters to weigh in on the long-discussed idea of a regional aquatics facility and water park.

Budget numbers have been crunched. Conceptual designs have been debated and finalized.

Ballots will be in the mail later this week.

The Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District is proposing a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick to pay for the attraction.

The proposal is the result of years of research and work by the public facilities district, which formed in 2010 to pursue regional projects that no one city could tackle alone. It has roots in a citizen effort that stretches back more than a decade to bring an aquatics center to the community.

If voters approve, the aquatics facility and water park will be built in west Pasco, with the goal of a summer 2015 opening.

As the Aug. 6 election nears, supporters and opponents are making their final appeals to voters.

Supporters have been the most active. They've formed a political committee that's registered with the state. They're fundraising, distributing literature and appearing at community events. They had raised about $3,500 as of last Wednesday.

Opponents haven't formed a similar group.

More pool space

Both sides agree the growing Tri-City community needs more public pool space. Richland, Pasco and Kennewick are the only three cities among Washington's 25 largest without public indoor swimming. The only indoor swimming pools are privately owned.

Supporters say the project would address that need, adding an indoor competition pool and a training pool that would be available year-round, as well as leisure and activity pools and other indoor and outdoor recreation features.

The project will mean far greater access in the community to swim lessons, water safety training and therapeutic water activities, and also help local competitive swim programs, which today are seriously crunched for space, supporters said.

And it will provide plenty of family fun, they said.

"From the youngest to the oldest (in the community) can benefit," said Paul White-marsh of Pasco, a longtime aquatics center proponent.

An aquatics facility like the one proposed is the "single missing piece in the community in terms of quality of life" offerings, he said.

Randy Willis, another longtime supporter, said there's strong desire in the community for such a facility.

But opponents say the aquatics proposal -- with a single facility they describe as a "commercial-style water park" -- doesn't meet the documented need for more public pool space in all three cities.

Opponent Vic Epperly of Kennewick has proposed a different track -- converting existing municipal pools in the three cities into year-round indoor pools with recreation features.

That would greatly increase the existing pools' availability and the amount of local indoor public pool space, he said. And it would be a more appropriate use of tax dollars than a sprawling water park.

Epperly's idea, which hasn't gained traction among local officials and won't appear on the ballot, involves a larger sales tax increase -- two-tenths of 1 percent. He argues it still would be the cheapest way to provide indoor pools in all three cities and would include money for operations costs if needed.

The sales tax also would provide a stream of money for other voter-approved regional projects down the road, he said.

The private enterprise question

Opponents also argue the aquatics facility and water park shouldn't be a public endeavor -- if it's going to happen, it should come from the private sector, not local government.

Epperly said basic recreation services, police and fire are the types of things public tax dollars should pay for, not a large water park.

"You want to have private enterprise doing what private enterprise can do. You want to be using tax funds for things that private enterprise is not well-equipped to do," he told the Herald.

The proposed facility would "squish the market" for private aquatics projects because "they can't compete with a tax-subsidized operation," Epperly said.

Another opponent, Rick Weiss of Pasco, said there are other needs in the Tri-Cities more pressing than an aquatics facility.

But supporters note that private enterprise has never been able to make a regional aquatics center happen in the Tri-Cities.

Proponents also say that what's being proposed is far more than a water park with slides and river channels -- it would provide important community services, from year-round swim lessons to water safety training to therapeutic opportunities.

A commercial water park is "not going to accommodate the people who need water for purposes other than recreation," Whitemarsh said.

The proposed public facility would be able to offer cheaper admission prices than private venues, supporters said. It also would give a boost to the local economy by drawing visitors who would spend money locally.

"We're talking about ... having a place to complement the other amenities we have in the area," said supporter Doug Wertz of Richland.

It also would be able to make money from open to close each day it's open because it wouldn't have to rely on booking events or shows, unlike publicly funded convention centers or similar facilities, Wertz said.

Other issues

Epperly and Weiss also say they have transparency concerns, namely that they feel public facilities district officials and supporters haven't made it clear that the sales tax increase is permanent, meaning it has no sunset.

Epperly also said it hasn't been made clear that the sales tax increase could be used for other regional projects in the future apart from the aquatics facility.

He feels officials have been deceptive, he said.

But supporters say they have no secrets, and details about the proposal are readily available. The public facilities district has a website, www.tcpfd.org, with financial information, conceptual plans and other documents.

Officials emphasized that the sales tax money will be used for the aquatics project. The board couldn't spend it on anything else without voter approval.

The aquatics center proposal up for election next month will need approval from a majority of the total number of voters casting ballots in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick in order to pass.

Epperly agrees with supporters that it is a quality of life issue.

"But I'm saying the quality of life applies to all three cities. The need should be addressed in all three cities," he said.

Supporters say the proposal is the right one for the community -- with a responsible budget and solid plans -- and it's what the public has wanted for years.

"It's way past time the Tri-Cities had the chance to say yes or no to such a project," Whitemarsh said.