Aquatic Center Contract Vote Postponed – By Robert Volpe

By a vote of 6-1 City Council decided to table the vote to approve a contract with Woodland Park School District RE-2 regarding a land transfer to the City for the purpose of building an aquatic center. The land is a 76,000 square-foot open field adjacent to the high school parking lot, which may be the future home of Woodland Park’s Community Aquatic Center.

Securing a site for the aquatic center has become the main hurdle of the project. Woodland Park voters strongly approved a ballot issue, allowing the city to incur debt to build a $15 million facility (with interest payments), but they didn’t pick a specific location.
For months, the city wanted to build the facility downtown in the Woodland Station area. This was touted as the best location for visitors and residents, and a good way to revitalize this anchor spot of the downtown development district. But City Manager Buttery opted to pull the plug on this location due to soaring infrastructure costs the city faced in making this spot a reality.

With the new deal, the city will obtain the property at no cost. In turn, the city will allow the school district to use the facility for competitive swimming meets and for physical education classes with no charge. But the school must give the city 25 percent of the fees they generate from these events.
Under the proposed deal, the city will still foot the entire bill for doing the necessary infrastructure work and for constructing the facility. The school will work out a cooperative arrangement for new aquatic center visitors to use the high school parking lot.

Last Thursday night, council chamber was filled with citizens wanting to express their concerns both pro and con about the aquatic center. Seventeen people signed in to have their voices heard.

Mayor Levy wasted no time getting to the question of the aquatic center. After minimal procedural necessities were addressed, City Manager David Buttery spoke about the history of the pool issue. He mentioned the years spent by individuals and community organizations like The Woodland Aquatic Project to make this project a reality. His presentation ultimately led to the issue surrounding Woodland Station as being the best location for the center.

When the project concept first took shape the preferred site for the center was downtown adjacent to Woodland Station. This site offered the most aesthetic views, accessibility, a park-like setting, and a central location. However, after a study determined the expense for drainage, and infrastructure would cost $4.1 million instead of the original estimate of $1 million a search for alternate sites ensued.

The alternate locations available were; Meadowood Park, “Duncan’s” land a plot of land west of Kelly’s Road to be donated by the land owner, and the high school property. City Manager Buttery went on to explain the benefits and drawbacks of each location, based mainly on financial criteria. He said, “Saving money on dirt allows us more money to put into the center itself.”

This is where public input and transparency questions arose.

The main point of contention with many residents who opposed the contract was the process the City used to go about choosing the high school property for the center. They felt there was not adequate and fair public input allowed to discuss alternative locations once the original downtown location at Woodland Station was deemed to expensive.

Councilman Phil Mella agreed that the City acted unilaterally in their choice of the high school location. He stated, “The process was flawed and there should have been more public input regarding the choice of a new location for the center.” He urged the council to vote against the contract pending further participation by the community in choosing the location for the project.

Concerns were also raised about parking arrangements, traffic and the use of the facility, when the school is in session. One citizen complained that building the center next to the high school would essentially make the facility a de facto “school pool.”

Juliann Mills, who lives near the proposed site, heavily objected to the school location, citing serious traffic problems in the area and questioned having this facility built on RE-2 property. She stated that many residents in the area oppose the location. “I do believe we are at a point in this project that we need to seriously consider a more feasible location. The high school location has many negatives,” said Mills, when addressing the city council. Mills went on to say she preferred the Meadowood location.
Not all the comments where against the contract or the high school location for the center. Most of the people who expressed their opinions had good things to say, although some were supportive but with conditions.
Art Wannlund, who has experience in matters of public aquatic issues, having been CEO of YMCA in California, spoke about some concerns he had with the contract. He singled out the 50 year term as being too long. He said, “Things change. Woodland Park isn’t the same as it was even 25 years ago.” He went on to say the contract was vague in terms of use and needed terms to meet changing needs of the community.
Council recognized the length of contract was a legitimate concern. City Attorney Erin Smith responded to Mr. Wannlund’s remarks regarding the 50 year term. She said, “The school has a license to use the center, but the City is the owner. The City grants rights implicit with the license.” Smith went on to explain the contract has an annual operating agreement written in that can facilitate changes that come up with issues regarding use.

Gerry Simon, President of Woodland Aquatic Project spoke about financial consequences of delaying the project. He said, “It’s nice this group stepped up and made a decision. It happened fast. It had to happen fast.” “Construction costs are rising all the time. Delaying will cost about $60,000 a month. That money comes out of money that could be put into amenities for the center.”

As the meeting continued on past 11 o’clock, Mayor Levy congratulated the public on their well thought out and relevant concerns and questions and the civil manner that they presented themselves.

Councilman Bob Carlsen said, “It would be worthwhile to look at some concerns raised by speakers. The move was not a very open process.” He added, “A ballot measure to determine the location would be a long delay and would cost a lot of money that could better be used on amenities for the center. It was a matter of urgency not a nefarious act”

Mayor pro-tem Carrol Harvey responded to questions of choosing the high school site. She said, “Executive session was never meant to change location. Property purchases are done in executive session. There was no attempt to hide anything.”

Councilman Noel Sawyer wrapped up the night with, “We have reached a time when this is going to be a reality. Have we spent enough time to fully consider, (everything)? In light of the new information tonight, we need time to review that information.”

A motion was made, seconded and passed to continue public hearing. The matter of the RE-2 contract will be taking up again at the regular City Council meeting on January 21, 2016.

Mayor Levy ended the night with a little dig at the public, “We were elected to make decisions.”

He then wished everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and said, “See ya next year!”