by Rick Langenberg
Plans for a $6 to $10 million aquatic center in downtown Woodland Park are ready for a revived, Olympic-level dive into the local political waters. But once again, the familiar project, which is now experiencing its fourth major competitive bid in the last 18 years, is encountering some difficult currents.
Last week, a community meeting sponsored by the Woodland Aquatic Project (WAP) committee generated a lively discussion, but sparked more questions than answers, such as: How will the elaborate center be funded and is the pro-aquatic group going down the same failed historic path as previous organizations? What about parking and why is the aqua center being proposed inside a popular, heavily used park area? Will the facility be able to accommodate the needs of both competitive swimmers and recreational pool-users? Why won’t the facility come equipped with a fitness center? Despite these questions, few people among the large crowd of 50-plus residents, who attended the forum, argued that the future center is a much needed amenity in the community. Many residents expressed bafflement over the fact that a town the size of Woodland Park doesn’t have a community pool. “I am shocked that this city doesn’t have a swimming pool,” said Roni Widtfeldt, who moved to Woodland Park about a year ago from Wyoming, following a nearly two-hour discussion. Most residents and WPA leaders agreed with these sentiments. “We want to re-energize Woodland Park as a family-friendly city,” said Gerry Simon, the main spokesman for the WPA group, in describing their mission. “We believe the center is going to be a gem for the city. It is going to be a selling point and centerpiece.” He and other WPA officials touted the project as a top-rate aquatic center, with several pool areas, a Jacuzzi, hot tub, sauna, deck, meeting rooms and a bevy of future amenities, such as racquetball courts, climbing walls and even a bowling alley.
The group plans to finalize a business plan later this summer and begin construction on the facility next spring. However, the group firmly resisted the idea of developing a fitness center, saying public monies should not be used to compete with existing businesses. In the last few years, Woodland Park has sprouted with a variety of small fitness businesses and work-out studios, but none have a pool. Many people in the audience gave the idea the thumbs-up, and relayed stories about how they have struggled to drive their kids down the Pass and to far-away locales to access pools for recreation and competitions. According to the WPA, the new center would be constructed along the north side of Memorial Park near the Woodland Park Senior Center. That spot has gained the top rating among the committee members.
Another location heavily favored is on land donated by Dana Duncan, the developer for Stone Ridge, near the intersection of Hwy. 67 and Kelley Road. Other sites reviewed included the former Saddle Club land and the Meadow Wood Sports Complex. The Memorial Park spot may have gotten the thumbs-up by the WPA, but the planned site sparked many concerns among community residents. “You are talking about several hundred kids (during swim meets),” grumbled one parent. “Where are they going to park?” Others posed questions about the impacts on the park area and the senior center. But board director Bob Carlsen, who also serves on the Woodland Park City Council, expressed much optimism about this site. This location is near the former location of a YMCA facility, which was the latest aqua and fitness project to get rejected by the voters. “Parking is not as bad as you may think,” said Carlsen, who mentioned a number of nearby parking areas. Debate brewing over project funding Parking woes, though, emerged as a minor concern. The biggest hurdle facing the group deals with project funding and the overall costs. And already, a big debate is brewing among several key elected leaders regarding the city’s future role in the project. Carlsen suggested that the city has the funds to finance a lion’s share of the project through the issuing of bonds, which won’t have to be paid out for several years. He hinted that if the city dedicated a regular source of annual aqua center funding, the project may work. “You can see a glimmer of where the money can come from,” said Carlsen, who said he has evaluated the city’s budget in detail. However, this kind of boastful talk raised the ire of Mayor Dave Turley.
According to the mayor, the city has many pressing needs and faces some major infrastructure expenses. “There are some important things that need to be done,” said Turley. “The city is just not sitting there with a lot of money. We have to spend money wisely.” That said, Turley indicated that he supports the project. However, he cautioned group leaders about turning the city into the prime ‘cash cow’ that finances the aqua center. He said he would like to see other funding entities step up to the plate, such as foundations and private companies and grant monies. “Where is this money going to come from,” questioned one resident, who cited project funding as the missing part of the equation that killed past attempts at doing an aqua and fitness center in Woodland Park. Another long-time resident, Brenda Wilson, urged the group to get a little more realistic with their plans. She referred to a proposed $10 million facility as outrageous. “We don’t need that fancy stuff. We live in the mountains,” said Wilson. Curt Grina, the co-founder of the Teller Alliance for Fitness group, who also was heavily involved in the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital project, agreed and stated that the impetus behind the current proposal stemmed from opposition to an original $16 million YMCA facility. “Let’s scale it down,” said Grina, in outlining problems with past plans. But at the same time, he stressed the fact that the city would have to become a major player in order for the project to work. He noted that private donations in Teller County only go so far. For example, he said the hospital drive, which occurred for nearly decade, only garnered $2 million from private donations, explained Grina. As a result, he stated that the appropriation of city funds would help stimulate additional monies for the center. The group’s next step will involve getting more bids for the facility they plan to build and then developing a formal business plan. The business plan will be presented to the city council in August.