My Turn: Aquatic center: wrong priority, wrong rationale

Posted: Sunday, October 02, 2005

I have been swimming daily at the pool for 10 years. In the last several years I have seen a declining use. The lap swimmers aren't there at noon. The warm pool doesn't seem to be as busy. The pool is not at a point where we need a new pool to handle the demand.

The Augustus Brown Pool building is approximately 14,000 square feet. The proposed pool and building is to be 46,200 square feet, three times the size of the current pool. Centennial Hall is 44,000 square feet. The proposed water park is larger than Centennial Hall.

Petersburg is building a new pool for less than $9 million. It will have a six-lane lap pool with spectator seating, a warm-water pool with a water slide and low entry. Why should the city's proposed pool cost $28 million?

The consultants for Juneau Parks and Recreation presented the Assembly with multiple alternatives. The Phase I revised plan option, with a project cost of $28 million, had the following components: library of 14,000 square feet, aquatic facility of 21,000 square feet, community rooms of 6,500 square feet, and 11,500 square feet of support area; for a total of 53,000 square feet.

The project we are being asked to fund will have 46,200 square feet; to aquatics 23,000 square feet is devoted. It includes an eight-lane lap pool, a warm water pool with water slides, lazy river, easy entry beach, a spa, sauna and offices for six people. Another 6,000 square feet of space is allocated to community/commons space and over half of that will be used for a "casual activities lounge" and a "youth lounge and game room." On top of this is over 2,000 square feet devoted to "center administration" with offices for nine more people.

We are being asked to commit $26 million of sales tax receipts, but it will take another $2.5 million in grants to fund the proposed eight-lane pool. The 1 percent sales tax projects list discussion of pool alternatives and funding says that an "aquatic facility only" option "has more restricted grant funding opportunities because there is no library component." The discussion goes on to say, "In order to secure such funding it would be important for the city to make clear its intent to proceed with library construction once funding sources were identified." To get the $2.5 million for an eight-lane pool, we have to build a library.

The ultimate intent to include a library is also evidenced in the indicated savings in rent for the present 7,000-square-foot library in Mendenhall Mall. Take the original Phase I revised plan of 53,000 square feet, cut the library down to 7,000 square feet and we have a 46,000-square-foot building. They are not talking about it, but have quietly labeled one area of the public plans as "circulation," perhaps as in library circulation.

Annual expenses of the facility are estimated by the city consultants at $1.5 million per year. The city projects cost recovery (user fees) at 87 percent of expenses or $1.2 million. Nationally 80 percent cost recovery is considered excellent. The current pool has an income of $335,000 per year and expenses of $800,000 - a cost recovery of 42 percent. Can we expect the city to suddenly improve its performance by over 100 percent? Most probably, the current pool will lose one-third of their revenue to the new facility.

Whether the taxpayers use the facility or not, they will pay $1.2 million annually to subsidize swimming.

The city's 1 percent projects list also identified $26.6 million worth of needed sewer projects that will serve over a thousand parcels of land so even more families can have homes of their own.

The Assembly has reversed our priorities. They are proposing we spend $26 million on a pool and $7 million on sewers. We should be spending $26 million on sewers and $7 million on a pool. That way we can have a population and tax base to support both.

• Juneau resident Neil MacKinnon is involved in the management and operation of numerous businesses ranging from property rentals, laundry and dry cleaning to mining and electric power.

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