by Rick Langenberg:
Proponents of a 20-year dream of having a top-rate, aquatic center in Woodland Park have once again taken an ambitious dive into the local political waters. Only this time, their effort has received the official support of elected leaders, who finally appear ready to take a swim. However, as with past aqua pool laps, questions still persist about funding an expensive $7 million project which would become a city facility under the latest plan.
Last week, the Woodland Park City Council, for the time since plans were submitted for a major 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot aquatic center several years ago, gave the unanimous thumbs-up by passing an official resolution that supports the Woodland Aquatic Project (WAP). Moreover, their action opens the door for the city to immediately pursue available general funds for constructing, designing and maintaining an aquatic center, expected to come equipped with five pools, a variety of programs, meeting rooms, a racquetball court, a spa and other amenities. But the measure stops short of providing any specific amount of city funds.
Councilman Bob Carlsen, who serves on the WAP board, described the action as extremely significant and a huge step forward for the group. “I am grateful,” said Carlsen, who has pushed the project since he was elected to the council in the spring of 2012, at the close of last week’s hearing. “This gives us a way to go forward.”
The council’s action followed pleas of support last Thursday evening from a large crowd of residents, representing a variety of age groups, who expressed much encouragement for the city to take a more active role in funding and moving the project ahead. “It is good for jobs, It is good for people. It is good for business. It will be a magnet for economic development,” said Steve Jeroslow, a local resident and WAP board member. Jeroslow, along with other supporters, maintained the city, with a much improved sales tax picture and local economy, has the money now to build or heavily finance the facility, if local leaders prioritize the project. Most supporters say the timing couldn’t be better for funding the aquatic center.
However, the council, while agreeing that the aquatic center is a much needed amenity, cited funding as the big hurdle. “The question is how do we (the city of Woodland Park) pay for it?” said Mayor Pro Tem Eric Smith. The council members remained quite divided regarding how to make the project a reality. Ideas ranged from presenting the voters with a sales tax initiative and forming a recreational district, to dedicating a certain amount of money from the city on an annual basis and using its current 410 road improvement fund once certain infrastructure projects are completed. Despite the differences in strategies, the council was strongly supportive of the venture and believes a future aqua center needs to be given top priority. “We need to roll up our sleeves and make it happen,” said Councilman Gary Brovetto.
This kind of swimming pool enthusiasm differed from a previous meeting a year ago, when the aqua group received a cold greeting and was bluntly told no Woodland Park funds are available for the project. In fact, in previous meetings, city leader have shied away from making any funding commitments, period. This skepticism is partially due to the fact that the city had previously spent about $750,000 for design plans for a proposed YMCA recreation center, which never got built.
As a result, most city leaders aren’t ready to embrace an ambitious plan to have the city serve as the main funder for footing the bill for financing the lion’s share of the project at a cost of possibly $600,000 to $700,000 per year over a long-term period. “We don’t have the money to build it,” said Councilwoman Carrol Harvey, who urged the group to consider another sales tax initiative. But with a previous sales tax plan for a recreation center getting badly rejected by local voters, Jerry Simon, the main aqua group spokesman, wasn’t that optimistic about pursuing that direction. He cited the importance of making this into a city facility, with construction and financing costs estimated at between $6.7 and $7.3 million.
Under this plan, the operations of the aqua center would be out-sourced, with a net annual cost estimated at about $100,000. Simon stressed the importance of making this a city center. But at the same time, he vowed that the WAP group would pursue an ambitious fund-raising campaign.
Jumping into the pool
Following a volley of pro-aqua comments from residents in the community, city leaders made it clear they are ready to jump into the pool, but cautiously.
Mayor Dave Turley, who has previously been quite skeptical regarding the use of city monies for the aqua project, said he regrets the fact that previous leaders around the time of the Wal-Mart project didn’t dedicate a set source of funds to former plans for a recreation center. “We might have had a bunch of money (for the project),” said Turley. The mayor favored establishing a system in which the city would commit an undetermined amount of money from its general fund for the aqua center. He opposed trying to raise property taxes or relying on its 410 sales tax funds for road improvements.
But other council members, such as Smith, wanted to have the city pay for the costs of operating the facility, and then have the WAP group go to the voters with another sales tax plan or try to raise the money through private fund-raising and grants. A previous comprehensive aquatic center survey by Perini & Associates indicated that these funding options were rated favorably. More importantly, this study showed that 74 percent of the respondents heavily supported the idea of a Woodland Park aquatic center.
“Let’s campaign and get it done,” said Smith, who cited the strong enthusiasm towards the project exhibited by the residents, compared to previous attempts at financing a full-fledged recreation center. Smith especially lauded the group for sticking to plans for a moderately-priced aquatic center, instead of a recreation facility. “I don’t want to see us get in the gym business,” stated Smith.
But the memories of past tax bids still linger, according to aqua center proponents. Since the mid-1990s, civic leaders and Woodland Park officials have pursued at least four major campaigns for a city recreation facility. During this process, voters have previously rejected plans for funding these facilities with the use of property and sales tax increases. These propositions, especially one in 2010, got beat by wide margins. At the same time, studies and comments at public forums have shown definite support for having at least an aquatic center.
No shortage of public support
After throwing a variety of ideas, the council last week agreed to endorse an official resolution that supported the project and indicated that the city would examine its 214 budget to identify a funding stream for paying for the “design, construction, operation and maintenance of the aquatic center.” Last week’s hearing also rendered one strong conclusion: local students, seniors, civic leaders and parents want an aquatic center. More than 20 people, many of whom wore “swim” tags, spoke in favor of the project at last week’s hearing and expressed bafflement at the city’s inability to have a pool or recreation facility.
Long-time Local resident and business owner Steve Roshek estimated that at least eight surveys have been done in the last few decades in support of a major push to have a major aquatic and recreation center. “These groups have done a ton of work,” said Roshek, in outlining the efforts of many pro-recreation center groups in the community. “Funding to me seems like a minor thing.”
A volley of pro-aquatic center comments were delivered last week from many students, parents and representatives of the senior center and military community. In fact, no one spoke against the proposed pro-aquatic center resolution or opposed having the city take a leading financial role in the project.
The next step now involves establishing more concrete plans for the facility and selecting a site. Most city leader favor locating the facility in Memorial Park, but aqua center proponents say they are willing to be flexible regarding a final facility location.