By JESSE BURKHARDT
The city of White Salmon's inability to fund operations of the city's swimming pool may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Energized in part due to the insecurity of the pool under the city's management, a group of citizens are mounting an effort to develop a parks and recreation district for the area. The ultimate objective of the effort is to use the resources a parks and recreation district would provide to build a new aquatic center and a performing arts center.
Bill Ward, one of the leaders of the effort to establish what is being called the "White Salmon Valley Parks & Recreation District" (WSVPRD), said frustration over White Salmon's inability to fund the swimming pool has been growing.
"During 2009, private contributions, community youth funds, and a grant were major sources of funding to repair and operate the old city pool," Ward explained. "Donations of approximately $60,000 during 2008-2009 were given in good faith, expecting to put the facility in a good, safe, operable condition. It is certainly time for the pool to be removed from the city and put under the jurisdiction of a parks and recreation district."
"A pool and a performing arts center are the two primary elements of forming a parks and recreation district," added White Salmon resident Bill Whidden, an active supporter of the proposed parks and recreation district. "If we integrate those two elements, we get an economy of scale with the building. The design is currently wide open, but we estimate we'll need about 30,000-40,000 square feet."
In a budget-cutting move in late August, the city of White Salmon's Budget Committee decided to keep the pool closed in 2010, saving the city about $40,000 in operating costs for the year.
Whidden pointed out that White Salmon's troubles with the swimming pool show the need for a fresh approach.
"It shows we really need a pool outside the city venue," Whidden said.
Supporters plan to begin circulating petitions to create a local parks and recreation district on March 15, 2010.
"We need 15 percent of registered voters within the district's boundaries," explained Ward.
An estimated 800 signatures would be required to get the measure on the ballot. WSVPRD backers said they did not anticipate much difficulty in reaching that threshold.
"We haven't bumped into too many people in opposition to the proposal," Ward said. "The goal is to have it on the November 2010 general election ballot. A simple majority vote would be needed to approve formation of the parks and recreation district."
The boundaries of the proposed district would go east to include the Lyle area, west as far as the Underwood community, and north to Trout Lake. Glenwood and Klickitat are not included within the proposed district as currently envisioned.
"Our mission for now is to try to build momentum leading up to that vote," Whidden said.
Although the effort is in its infancy, the group already has a solid base of support in the community from White Salmon Rotary.
"Rotary will help give a push to the initiative," said Whidden, a Rotary member.
If the measure is approved by voters, construction of the facility could start almost immediately.
"There are lots of grants available to build a pool. Federal funds are available. It wouldn't cost the taxpayers. But we need to show sustainability, and the best way to show that is to have a parks and rec district," explained Paul Mosbrucker, a member of the committee supporting formation of the district.
"It's a lot easier to get grants if we have this in place," added Ward. "In fact, we've had people tell us they'll give us grants if we have the parks and recreation district in place."
Ward also pointed out that it has one big piece of the puzzle already in place -- the White Salmon Valley School District has agreed to provide property where a pool and performing arts center could be built.
"The School Board has passed a resolution to allow a facility to be built on school property outside the city limits," Ward explained.
The site under consideration is the currently empty field between the bus barns and the soccer fields across from Columbia High School/Henkle Middle School. The parcel covers about three acres.
Most likely, the school district would make the land available to WSVPRD on a long-term lease. In exchange, the school district would have use of the facilities for plays, concerts, and sporting events.
The proposed performing arts center would have a seating capacity of between 1,500-2,000, while the pool is envisioned as being large enough that it could host formal competition.
"If we have an eight-lane, 50-meter pool, it becomes much more of a magnet for qualifying events. It could be a boon to the area," Ward said. "There are very few pools of this size in the Northwest -- if we are going to build one, we might as well build it right."
The pool would also offer physical therapy activities, as well as water slides and swimming lessons for kids.
Backers estimated the cost for the pool and building at approximately $5 million.
"The whole concept is to have the district serve as a launching pad to collect funds to put the pool together, with grants and matching funds," explained Whidden. "We hope there's enough enthusiasm in the area to raise some of the costs, and then the ongoing maintenance and operation of the pool is what the parks and recreation district is for."
After the initial construction costs, the district would most likely be supported by some kind of fee system for users.
"We want to avoid having to tax to support the facility," Ward said.
He added that a viable performing arts center is needed in the community.
"The school is dearly lacking in those facilities. When you have to have plays in the elementary school gym on folding chairs, it's not a good situation," Ward said.